Interview - Terry Knights, Pilot, Gama Aviation
Gama Special Missions air ambulance pilot Terry Knights talks about the experiences that shaped his career, from catching the aviation bug in New Zealand as a child, to flying air medical missions over the English Channel decades later
At a very young age back in New Zealand, I used tag along to the local Aero Club with my late father John, who was club secretary at the time. I guess this is where I was bitten by that little bug called aviation. The outcome, as most will tell, is a strong desire that you just can’t shake!
After leaving school with no formal qualifications other than an unshakable aviation affliction and a need to walk my own line in life, I have ended up halfway around the world and half a century on, with a full career in the Royal Marines behind me. I find myself in my dream job, flying an air ambulance, and what a life it has been in between!
I get to fly over the English Channel seeing the vistas of the White Cliffs of Dover and the patchwork of fields that my childhood heroes like Douglas Bader, Johnny Checketts and other World War II pilots would have seen, sometimes landing at the iconic Biggin Hill airfield and, to top it off, watch Spitfires still taking off from here. Who would have thought when I was reading Reach for the Sky at primary school in New Zealand all those years ago, and daydreaming about the famous air battles that took place over the South Coast, that I too would be flying in that same airspace trying to bring some good?
From warzone to the cockpit
I had started training to be a pilot years ago back in New Zealand, but found that the kind of money needed to complete the course was difficult to make in the small farming community where I grew up. So, after a move to the UK, which is where my father was from, and quite a way into my military career, I decided to give it one last try.
It was back in 2006 that I made the decision, just before I left for my second tour of Iraq. I took my self-study books for my provisional pilot’s licence (PPL) in my comfort box and got my head in them at every available moment when I was not out on patrol, preparing for my PPL course upon my return.
One memorable occasion, I was sitting studying in a Portakabin at Basra Airbase as we were spending a couple of days there, when a rocket attack came in, landing very close and causing me to take cover under a desk. That particular tour was quite kinetic, with rocket or mortar attacks on a daily basis, along with all the other bits and pieces that happen while out on patrol.
After listening to stories from a HEMS helicopter pilot about his job, I decided that this was probably the best job in the world to do – however, I couldn’t afford a helicopter licence!
Upon my return to the UK, I booked a place for my PPL theory course and practical flying in Bournemouth. I was on my way to achieving my dream of becoming a pilot! As the years rolled on, self-study books accompanied me everywhere I went. I studied hard, even out in the Land Rover on exercise.
I first studied for my commercial pilot’s licence then followed it with an instrument rating qualification. After listening to stories from a HEMS helicopter pilot about his job, I decided that this was probably the best job in the world to do – however, I couldn’t afford a helicopter licence!
It wasn’t until I attended an airline transport pilot license course that I met another person who flew for an Exeter-based company that carried out the next best thing – medical repatriation. I then made this my goal.
Networking and teamworking
By chance, I managed to get an inroad into this industry through the wider Royal Marines community on LinkedIn, for which I will be eternally grateful. So, following a ‘give this chap a call, here is his number’, conversation, I ended up flying in the right-hand seat of a King Air air ambulance all over Europe for two years as a pilot’s assistant. Flying over 200 unlogged hours, my dream had almost come true. All I would have to do is accrue 700 hours! With that in mind, my CV went out on the rounds again. This time, I found a parachute center down in Cornwall that took me on.
Over three seasons of jump flying, along with flying a camera plane, I managed to achieve my 700-hour goal just as a position became available flying a Piper Chieftain air ambulance in the Channel Islands for the company I had been flying for as a pilot’s assistant.
I submitted my CV for the job and was successful. I was there, and on cloud nine, excuse the pun. For another three years, I was flying the Piper Chieftain in the air ambulance role between the Channel Islands and the mainland, and sometimes the Isle of Man and the mainland. This is where I cut my teeth in an old twin-piston engine aircraft, in all weathers, single crew. In fact, after the first winter, it was a bit unnerving to see the water below as I was so used to being up in the clouds.
Often, I would be flying at night in rubbish weather, trying to keep out of the icing layer, or in heavy rain with water dripping on my leg through the direct vision window, finishing up with a hand flown instrument landing on old instruments, down to minima. Wow, what a way! I still miss flying that aircraft, and was privileged to have that start in the industry, as it doesn’t happen anymore.
Moving on up
I then moved up a spot to flying as a first officer on the King Air, which came with my first type rating. After a year in the right seat, I was about to move back to left seat as a captain when Covid struck, which meant I was about to lose this opportunity. And this was the one I had been working towards all those years! So, out went my CV again, and luckily, I ended up flying the same operation, but now for Gama Special Missions.
It has taken few months to learn to do things the Gama way, with all our recurrent training being provided by FlightSafety in their King Air full motion flight simulator at Farnborough. This allows for every conceivable emergency to be replicated, along with ground school on all the aircraft systems providing pilots with a good sound knowledge and skillset on the aircraft for which they are flying, as this is a Gama Aviation requirement for their crew.
After a year with Gama Special Missions, I have now transitioned to the left seat as captain of the King Air. It has taken me 14 years to finally achieve my goal, and is a long way from those days in little Cessna 152s, then the Beechcraft Duchess, to now flying the twin-turbine and very capable Beechcraft King Air.
Over the years, there have been many memorable missions, some with joy and some with sorrow. It is always a privilege to be part of an air medical mission and hopefully make a difference to someone’s life, however small that may be. I am always massively impressed when I get the opportunity to observe our highly trained medical team carrying out their tasks in the confined space of the aircraft. They are truly very awe inspiring, especially when things are starting to get interesting – the skills of these people are amazing.
All I can say to anyone who has thought about starting a second career late in life is to follow your dreams, and be true to yourself. You may need to think outside the box at times. I started my flying career at the age of 40 after leaving school with no qualifications. Flying is hard to get into, but achievable. You just need to persevere and never give up; look for and seize every opportunity however small. You will take plenty of knocks along the way, but you only fail when you don’t get back up. I know that is a bit clichéd – but it is true!
Raising money for children’s air ambulance charity
I am now committed to try and bring more visibility to the small but very important charity of Lucy’s Air Ambulance for Children, which provides patient transfers for children in need of specialist treatment. Last year, I competed in the Weymouth Ironman 70.3, followed two weeks later by the London Marathon. I am not an ultra runner, but I just like to push the limits, as life is for living. I feel pain like everyone else, and I certainly did on these two events.
This year, with the support of Gama Special Missions, my challenge for Lucy Air Ambulance is the Marathon Des Sables, a six-day ultra-marathon across the Sahara Desert deemed the toughest foot race on the planet, followed by the Polar Bear Challenge, a marathon followed by a half marathon in the Arctic Circle of Greenland. Please take a look at my just giving page as this is such a small but worthwhile charity that can make such a difference to so many peoples lives’, as it was put to me once, these children haven’t done anything wrong in life and deserve a decent start.