Flying high - J’can among top US fighter pilots

US commanding officer praises J’can-born pilot

BY INGRID BROWN Observer senior reporter

Thursday, February 23, 2012

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JAMAICAN-born Diego McKnight has been designated one of the best-trained and most highly-skilled pilots in the world. McKnight, at 25 and at one time the only black person in his squadron, has not only attained the Lieutenant Junior Grade in record time, but is now among an elite group of some 400 persons who can operate the Navy's MH-60 Romeo multi-mission helicopter, the world's most-advanced anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare helicopter.

"Aviation came pretty natural for me, and part of the reason for that is because I used to spend a great deal of time as a child playing flight simulator on video games," said McKnight with becoming humility, in an interview with the Observer

McKnight migrated to the US as a teenager, having set his heart, from then, on becoming a pilot in the US Navy. What he didn't know was just how quickly he would have scurried up the ladder of success; from a 17-year-old student at the Caribbean Aviation Centre at Kingston's Tinson Pen to a top naval pilot in the world's most powerful army in about eight years.

Proud father Leighton McKnight, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and one of the biggest names among Western Hemisphere Kiwanians, was beside himself when he received a glowing letter from commanding officer in the Department of the Navy, M C Thompson, informing him that his son had received the coveted designation as naval aviator.

"He is living my dream, so you can imagine the pride I feel," said the elder McKnight, noting that he had often spoken to his son about humility, integrity and being the best he could be.

In his letter, Thompson wrote: "This important event is the culmination of many months of intensive application on his (Diego's) part, which is required for the successful completion of the demanding academic, military and airborne curriculum. The syllabus is difficult and highly competitive. Additionally, one's ability to perform under conditions of extreme stress is carefully measured. Your son has fulfilled all requirements, his designation represents a personal achievement. We are proud to add his name to the illustrious list of naval aviators...

"To some, the 'Wings of Gold' is only an insignia worn by individuals who know how to fly. However, anyone knowledgeable of the demands and challenges of naval aviators would affirm that no greater understatement could exist. Naval aviators are the best-trained and most highly-skilled military pilots in the world...The responsibilities vested in the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard helicopter pilots have never been greater. They are true and vital members of our country's national defence," he said.

Diego McKnight said he developed a love for flying during his numerous trips on Air Jamaica every holiday to visit his father who remained in Jamaica.

"I wanted to be a police officer while in high school, and I also started to think (that) I want to be a pilot; and I thought where would I get the best of both worlds — flying and still being able to help people — and I decided that would be the military," he related to the Observer.

His father wasted no time in enrolling him in the flight programme at the Caribbean Aviation Centre at Tinson Pen to begin ground school training. On leaving high school, McKnight completed another aviation programme at the Broward Community College in South Florida where he received his private and instrument rating. Next was his acceptance to the USA's top aeronautical university, Embry Riddle, from which he graduated in 2009 as a multi-rated pilot with a bachelor's degree in aviation.

During this time, he also joined the NAVY ROTC programme and was later commissioned as a naval officer on completion of his aviation degree. In 2010, he enrolled in the Navy flight school and had to start training almost from scratch, with special emphasis on survival training.

"Navy flight school is really tedious because of the amount of things you have to learn in a relatively short time," he said.

After completing ground school, McKnight was off to South Texas to begin primary flight re-training, because "I had all this training but only as a civilian".

"My civilian training was teaching me how to take this aircraft and use it as a vehicle to transport people or goods from point A to B, while the Navy was teaching me to fly this aircraft to use as a weapon to fly from point A to point C dropping bombs or picking up people..."

But even with all that training, McKnight was not satisfied and set his sights on learning to operate a helicopter, noting that up to last May he knew nothing about flying such an aircraft. Last November he completed the training and in December was decorated with his naval aviator wings, followed by a promotion to lieutenant.

"The way the world is going now, flying a helicopter is a lot more practical than flying a fighter jet; because a fighter jet drop bombs and shoots targets, while a helicopter, in addition to that, can also do search and rescue, transport humanitarian aid, hunt for pirates or counter narcotics; they do everything and so I wanted that mission," he said.

McKnight said he was fully prepared and eagerly awaiting his future assignment, especially if he was able to begin helping people.

"We might be sent to go chase pilots off the coast of Somalia or be needed to do troop insurgents in Afghanistan or to go to Colombia to chase drug smugglers, it could be anything," he said.

McKnight, who describes himself as "my father's child", praised his parents for preparing him so well, saying: "I got a lot of the basic principles from my dad, who has always been a people person, such as working with the Kiwanis Club and always caring for other people."

His mother, Hope White, also spent her life caring for others as she pursued a career in nursing, McKnight added.

He hoped that his life would be an inspiration to other Jamaican children who come from similarly humble backgrounds but have big dreams.

While in Jamaica, McKnight took the title of go-cart rookie champion for 2004 and go-cart racing instructor, Peter Rae, who witnessed McKnight's development in the earlier years when he raced at the Palisadoes track as a teen, believed that his dedication to that sport had also influenced his success in the military.

"It was very gratifying to read about his progress because he spent lots of hours pounding the track in the hot sun and that was brought out in the military," Rae said.





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