Non-Pilot May Head RAF For First Time


For the first time in its more than 100-year history, the U.K.’s Royal Air Force is expected to name a non-pilot as its commander later this year. Sky News says it has learned the new Chief of the Air Staff will be Air Marshal Sir Richard Knighton. If confirmed, he will only be the second person who hasn’t served as a fighter pilot at the helm of the organization. A helicopter pilot headed the RAF in 2013. “It breaks an important glass ceiling,” Sky News quoted one source as saying. “We have never had a non-pilot before.”

Knighton is currently the deputy commander in charge of capability and was also a deputy chief of defense staff, so he’s not a stranger to headquarters but he’s never been on the front lines. “It is extraordinary given the extensive number of deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan over many years that someone could rise to commander of the RAF without deploying on either of those defining operations,” a former RAF officer told Sky News. Politics and tradition aside, the new CAS knows he faces an extraordinary number of serious issues, ranging from lagging recruitment to stalled flight training and behavior issues with the elite Red Arrows air demonstration team. The RAF refused to confirm the Sky News report.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. Typical.
    Same concept as political leaders who enter parliament without any knowledge of the ‘real’ world, having left school, spent 3 years at Uni, and immediately commenced a political life.
    A self-serving existence.
    UK is a very poorly run country in all the reas where experience matters.

  2. Leadership capabilities come in lots of flavors, and where you stand can depend on where you sit. When I was an infantry officer I was convinced that only an infantry officer could effectively lead and run a unit — any unit. When I became an MI officer I was shocked that grunts thought they could my job better than me! Seems to me an air force (or aviation administration) is such a complex organization that not being a pilot can be offset by that special capability to organize, understand, and lead which a few rare people manifest. Let’s see how it goes.

  3. Does not seem like a good idea. Was “…he’s not a stranger to headquarters…” the most important factor to those who made the choice?

  4. Ahh yes. Another ceiling shattered. I’m sure it will improve the RAF’s combat readiness.

  5. I suspect what the RAF needs most is the ability to keep birds in the sky as much as possible. Maybe this guy is good at wrangling money out of parliament and making vendors provide quality goods?
    Not sure his lack of flying experience is a big weakness at the top of the organization. As an Army officer, many of my soldiers had necessary skills that I did not possess.

  6. If the FAA does not need a leader that is versed in aviation then perhaps the RAF need not as well.

    • It’s the current trend. It’s easy to deal with an unqualified leader that can’t argue back as he has no real knowledge base with which to argue from. They are easily controlled and that’s what makes governments job easier. The USA has a president that is truly a figurehead and incapable of normal cognitive reasoning. He’s perfect for the job. Easily manipulated to say exactly what his cabinet desires. Why not have the same capability in the RAF?

  7. According to the Sky News article, he is an engineer. Started as an aircraft engineer, then seems to have gone into “capabilities”. So, he may be a good manager, which might be what the RAF really needs.
    If what makes you a qualified candidate is being able to say “I fought the Red Baron in my Sopwith Camel” the Snoopy should be head of the air force.

  8. “Equity.” It’s an amazing thing that this world needs to get used to, or not. We just went through this with a guy by the name of “Paul Washington” that didn’t have a lick of experience regarding the job ole’ Joey wanted him to do. Fortunately the rational politicians won. Look out G.B. Things will not bode well for you.

  9. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but being a pilot is becoming less and less necessary for a leadership role. If the war in Ukraine has taught us anything, it’s that piloted aircraft are becoming less and less relevant while unmanned weapons (drones, cruise missiles, surface to air missiles, etc.) are just now coming into their own with hypersonic capabilities, loitering capabilities and artificial intelligence.

  10. As a long time air traffic controller, now retired. I served as a unit manager in several units. I was very sceptical when our first non air traffic controller was appointed manager at our site. I was proven wrong, he turned out to be one of the best we had definitely superior to other ATC bosses we had experienced. Good leadership qualities prove far more important than the arrogant belief in one’s ability to do the job.