Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Bob Knight: God protects an old, bold pilot

The miraculous Bob Knight

by Wyatt Emmerich 

There’s an old pilot saying: There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots. And then there is my father-in-law Bob Knight.

I reached Bob last week to ask him if it was all right to write about him on his 80th birthday. He was in Monroe, flying private clients in one of his several airplanes.

He may be the oldest commercial pilot to fly private clients solo in the history of the United States, perhaps the world. The Guinness Book of World Records says the oldest commercial pilot is a 92-year-old Japanese pilot who is still towing banners. But he doesn’t fly passengers. My Google search was unable to find an older passenger-carrying commercial pilot than Bob Knight. He is one of a kind.

The major airlines recently increased the mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65. But for private planes, there is no mandatory age for a commercial pilot. You just have to pass the rigorous physical test every two years. Bob still has loyal clients he has been flying for decades. Bob’s probably in better physical shape than me.

I asked him once how many flying hours he had. He just laughed at me. He has lost count of the number of forced landings he’s walked away from.

My wife Ginny grew up in Taylorsville with a grass landing strip in their backyard. They nicknamed the strip “Taylorsville International.” The family of four flew everywhere – to the mountains, to the Bahamas, to New Orleans and back for dinner.

As Ginny describes it, every time a plane flew over Taylorsville, the locals would look up and say with a thick rural accent, “Well yonder goes Robert Terrell.”

When Ginny first met me, she couldn’t believe her luck: She found a man she liked who had zero interest in flying. Then I met Bob. Two years later, I was a pilot. “I knew it was too good to be true,” she moaned later.

My father and mother were pilots, but I was a “white-knuckle” passenger, as my father used to say. When my father died, his airplane gathered dust for two years. “Let’s at least go up and take a look at it,” Bob told me one day. Then the Knight magic took hold.

The Bob Knight flying stories are legendary in pilot circles. One person told me how he would land on the highway, taxi to a filling station and fill up to avoid paying the avgas tax. Then he would take back off.

One flying instructor told me how Jackson International was socked in. Commercial jets were “going around” because they could not land. Then along comes Bob Knight and plops down on the runway, no problem. The controller in the tower met Bob on the runway and gave him the card of an instrument instructor. “Bob, you have got to get your instrument rating,” the controller demanded. It was a different era.

He hand flies instrument approaches in minimum conditions that I wouldn’t even consider attempting with my state-of-the-art autopilot. Piece of cake for Bob Knight.

I remember a wonderful moment way back when. I was flying with my family somewhere over Texas when a familiar voice came over the frequency. “Hey, hey, Wyatt. It’s Bob. How’s my favorite son-in-law. Beautiful day to be flying.”

Once he came to pick me up at Hawkins Field. A nasty thunderstorm kicked up. I refused to get in the plane. Off he went.

Another time he was flying his family back from a skiing trip. He picked up ice over the Mississippi River and just barely made it to his grass strip. “My max airspeed, max power and stall speed all converged into one.”

One moonless night, his single-engine Bonanza lost power over a dark forest north of Baton Rouge. He managed to land on the tiniest opening imaginable, avoiding a huge oak by several feet. His passenger was uninjured. Bob ended up with some metal along his spine and an inch shorter, but it didn’t slow him down.

Just a few years ago, he flew his twin-engine Aerostar into Taylorsville International. The next morning the dew was heavy and the grass on the strip was high. We all insisted that he not take off and he agreed. Moments later, he slipped away without us noticing. When I heard the engines crank, I got down on my knees and prayed. Away he flew.

Bob reminds me of my maternal grandfather, Bob Buntin, who was a Gulfport judge in his later years. During World War I, Bob Buntin was a test pilot. Out of his group of 20 test pilots, he was the only one to survive. He did so by curling himself into a ball and jumping out of the plane just before it crashed. He did this three times. I shouldn’t even exist. But I do.

When I look at the smiling face of Bob Knight – and he is always smiling and laughing – it is though I am looking straight into the face of divine providence. He was meant to be.

At his 80th birthday, more than a hundred people came by to celebrate. Many were friends who struggled with addiction, people Bob helped through the roughest points in their life. “The fact of the matter is we are here for only one purpose: To help other people.”

Bob had his own struggle with addiction and destructive behavior. He paid a price. Then one day, he changed and never looked back. He hasn’t had a drink in more than 40 years. He starts each morning at AA.

Bob Knight is a living breathing example of God’s promise of providence and personal redemption. He got there by God’s grace through the crucible of the human struggle. And he knows it.

“I am just happy to be alive and living each day in humble gratitude,” he tells me every time I call. After an improbable life of unbelievable chance and adventure, peppered with his share of struggles, God brought “Knight Train” to the place we all need to be. Can you ask for anything more?

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