Wing Commander Richard Knight OBE, Newcastle Airport's new operations director, already has an amazing career behind him as Peter Jackson discovers.
RICHARD Knight, then a flight lieutenant, was the navigator in a Tornado F3 fighter, patrolling the skies south of Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, when the plane lost power in one engine.
“Losing an engine’s always quite entertaining,” he says laconically, “it’s not the easiest thing with just a single engine and all the rest of it.
“But we diverted to Kuwait which was the nearest friendly place and we landed there.”
He tells me the tale in the more prosaic atmosphere of a windowless office in Newcastle International Airport where he is about to take the post of operations director.
He’s a thin, spare man, 45-years-old, and his delivery slightly staccato with the kind of short punchy sentences that make you feel as though you are being briefed before the Dambusters’ raid.
It’s probably because he’s ill at ease being interviewed which, he later admits, “puts him outside his comfort zone”. That’s something for a man who twice has had his hand on an ejector seat handle and thought he was going to pull it, once in a near mid-air collision and once when bouncing on landing.
In fact, Knight is far less RAF and more corporate than I had anticipated, even though he served for 27 years having joined when he was 17 on a three-year apprenticeship.
He was born in Carshalton, just south of London but, his father working in railways, the family moved around and his youth was spent in Luton, Nottingham, Crewe and Leeds.
“I predominantly did my schooling in Leeds,” he says, “not far from Leeds Bradford Airport. I used to ride my bicycle down the dip and up the other side, and go and look at two F27 aeroplanes sat there.”
He had always had an interest in aircraft and avidly built his Airfix kits and he had helped his father restore cars, so, not liking sixth form college, he was delighted to be accepted by the RAF at his second attempt.
He did his initial six-week training at RAF Swinderby in Lincolnshire which was “a real shock as a 17-year-old”.
“I wasn’t so much homesick, but you have to manage yourself in terms of eating, cleaning all that sort of stuff, but I think I’ve got that discipline and I took to it well,” he says.
“Then I went to RAF Halton where you are the lowest of the low. That was nigh on borstal with head boys who would beat, bully and make you run round with not a lot of clothes on.”
He qualified in 1988 as airframe engines junior technician. He had applied for a commission, was accepted and was then sent to RAF College Cranwell for officer training, followed by navigator training, which finished just before the start of the first Gulf War.
During that conflict the RAF suffered high attrition on its low level bombing raids. How did that make him feel?
“You’re quite young, I was 21, and for me it was all about flying aeroplanes. When I look back on it, I think when you join the military you are crossing a line and I was always aware you are crossing a line saying you are willing to die for your Queen and country.”
After training, he went to join his front-line unit, 25 Squadron, where he served for two and a half years before a three-year posting to the Royal Marines as a forward air controller whose job is to direct aircraft onto ground targets.
“We trained with US Navy SEALs and all this sort of stuff which was good fun, and scary,” he says. He returned to flying, and served in Bosnia and the Gulf where he had his engine failure, and was promoted to squadron leader.
By this time, he had met and married his wife Jacqueline and she became pregnant with their first child Henry who was born in 2001.
Knight then did an MSc at RAF Cranwell which involved travelling to the US and Israel, and various industries around the UK including BAe Systems. He worked for the MoD in procurement and then went on to be head of operations at 25 Squadron in North Yorkshire. In 2005, he moved to High Wycombe as operations officer. He was promoted to wing commander and then had to take a significant strategic decision on his future career path in an age of post-Cold War peace dividend and defence cuts.
He recalls: “I really enjoyed the military, but I wondered how long it would last. I looked at my peers and at how many were going, at the number of squadron command tours that were going to be kicking around and looked at the life of the aircraft and thought, what do I want to do?”
He was offered a place at Staff College or the chance of doing a degree. “I could have done any degree but I elected to do an MBA after speaking to people I knew in the Department of Transport.
“I wondered about a terrorism degree but people said ‘you are pretty up to speed with all that’, what you don’t have is business.”
So he did an MBA at Bath and “really enjoyed it”. “Fantastic, cross-cultural people. I got a distinction for my thesis. I worked really hard. I lived in Bath during the week. I’ve got three kids. I worked every night and then I could spend time with my kids and just forget about it at the weekend.
“That was one of the things that really changed my outlook on life and has been more helpful than I imagined it would be in a lot of respects.”
From there he went to the MoD in Whitehall to fly a desk as a strategic planner for the Middle East looking at areas not then in conflict, such as Syria, Iran, Israel and Egypt, which must give him a fascinating insight into current events. He was preparing papers for Gordon Brown and the Cabinet Office on the Middle East.
“It was fascinating being involved at that level of government and understanding how the whole machine works,” he says, “but the actual work itself was a lot of policy writing and a lot of strategy writing, and you touched on the edges of the flying world and the special forces world, but actually that’s the stuff you want to be going and doing rather than writing about it.”
He and his family had been in a new house near High Wycombe for about two months when he was ordered to the Falklands to be head of airport operations.
“I told my wife down the phone, which is probably not the best thing ever to do, that she had the opportunity to live 8,000 miles further south then where she’s currently standing.”
What was her reaction? “What you’d expect.”
But they knew that if he had turned it down he would never have received another promotion.
It was to prove, however, an amazing posting allowing them to visit Chile, Patagonia and Ascencion Island. They saw dolphins surfing and visited the world’s largest albatross colony.
And, by-the-by, while he was there, he was given an OBE for “leadership, business development, the delivery of large scale strategic change, personnel development and charity work alongside significant engagement with the wider community”.
He served there for two years and then, at four weeks’ notice, was brought back to the UK to teach at the UK Defence Academy, Shrivenham, where he was responsible for the creation, design and training in strategic and operational level planning and its application. His students were selected from the top 20% of British and international senior commanders. But he could see the changes he had anticipated when he chose to do his MBA were more clearly imminent.
“The writing was on the wall and I think the Ministry of Defence was in crisis. I had my option to leave, so I left because I thought I’d get a head start in getting a job.” It was still a big decision.
“My father said: ‘You must be mad, we’re in the middle of a recession and you’re giving up a good job’.”
But the family were also ready to put down roots. “We’ve moved a lot, we’ve had 14 houses in 17 years of marriage and my lad has had four schools this year,” he says.
His aim was to find a job between Leeds and Newcastle as his parents now live in York and Jacqueline’s mother lives in Thirsk. However, he saw the job of airport manager at Cambridge Airport advertised which he successfully applied for and took up in May 2011.
Was it a big culture change from the services to Civvie Street? “Not so much. Cambridge Airport does a lot of military work so there are a lot of military people there. Also, having worked in places like the Ministry of Defence, I used to get on the train and get home in the evening. Apart from the knowledge and experience you have, that job is not dissimilar to any other.
“I miss the people, you do put your life on the line with people and I’ve got some close friends I’ve been in all sorts of situations with, who you are never going to forget.
“The biggest shock was the resource within the military. The plans and process and procedures and training is very good and I don’t think anyone has that resource in the private sector.”
At Cambridge, the airport was introducing passenger services which meant a complete restructuring. He led on the Olympics preparation, working with the trade union to change working patterns and on procurement of new equipment, staff training and logistical preparations for the airport’s new role. What gave him the most satisfaction while he was there was that, according to an independent survey, employee satisfaction doubled.
“What makes it work, what makes you have a great experience when you come to the airport is how people treat you and that makes a huge difference. I passionately believe that people are at the heart of success.”
Then the opening came up at Newcastle, which he and Jacqueline decided was too good a chance to miss. He applied for the job and got it and takes over from his predecessor Larry Heslop this week.
“For me, it’s about growing the airport, growing the team within the airport, providing the best service we can for the region and for the passengers that come through. I’m passionate about what we deliver. For me, it’s about when somebody gets off the roundabout on the A696 and drives onto the airport, that’s where our job starts: at all those touch points from car parking, the barrier, check-in, security, departure, can we get you away on time and if we can’t, are we telling you why we can’t?”
He has been a rolling stone, so is he now finally going to settle down?
“We are really loving it up here,” says Knight. “It’s a great region and a great bunch of people. We are living in Darras Hall at the moment, but we’d love to build our own place.
“It’s got good schools, the people are really friendly and you just get that vibe about the place. I could definitely grow old and grey here.
“Actually, I have grown old and grey, but I could grow older and greyer.”
What car do you drive?
Ford S Max, a small bus for a family of five plus dog and cat.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
A quiet country pub, I’m enjoying looking, having just moved to the area.
Who or what makes you laugh?
My children and observational humour, the likes of Michael McIntyre.
What’s your favourite book?
Sporting / explorer autobiographies.
What was the last album you bought?
Pet Shop Boys – Elysium.
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
Children, tidy up.
What’s your greatest fear?
Something bad happening to those I love.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Trust your instincts, if it doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t.
And the worst?
Never commit to anything.
What’s your poison?
A hand-pulled pint.
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
Beyond paper rounds, it was £50 including a haircut, week one in the Royal Air Force.
How do you keep fit?
Running, cycling and chasing three children.
What’s your most irritating habit?
My wife and kids would say email and mobile phones.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Those that pushed the boundaries of sport, science and engineering.
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Ernest Shackleton, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Amelia Earhart and Father Christmas.
How would you like to be remembered?
A loving husband and father who tried his best, a leader who understood those he worked with, and someone who was fair and good humoured.