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Widow's moving tribute to tragic microlight pilot

By Angela Rainey

Published 04/08/2016

Stephen McKnight had an angina-type attack in mid-flight
Stephen McKnight had an angina-type attack in mid-flight

An experienced pilot with undiagnosed heart disease suffered an angina-type attack in mid-flight causing his plane to crash, a Belfast coroner has found.

Devoted family man Stephen McKnight (55) died from extensive injuries when the fixed-wing microlight plane he was flying crashed at Ards Airfield on April 7 last year.

A former police officer with 29 years' service, Mr McKnight, from Hillsborough, developed a passion for flying in 2008 after receiving a gift voucher for a flight as a retirement present from his sons Gavin (30) and Michael (32).

Coroner Joe McChrisken, sitting at the inquest at Laganside Court, heard how Mr McKnight had passed all the relevant exams and was required to complete the last two hours of 12 in order to renew his bi-annual licence when the crash happened.

He said that he was satisfied that Mr McKnight was a "good, safe and meticulous pilot who took flying seriously".

Mr McKnight was a perfectionist in his flying routine and had taken his wife of 32 years Rosalind on a romantic coastal flight only the day before.

On the day of the crash he was seen practising circuits, take-offs and landings for around 50 minutes in preparation for the instructor flight.

Witnesses also said they saw the plane veer to the left before "corkscrewing" and plummeting around 100ft. Aviation and medical experts believe that Mr McKnight was unconscious at this stage and unaware of what was happening, which reassured his wife, who told the coroner that she "just wanted to know that he hadn't suffered".

Mrs McKnight paid tribute to her childhood sweetheart, who she met at college when they were "both 17 and shy".

"Stephen was kind and generous and the most caring person - he cared about everyone," she said. "He joined the police because he wanted to help others and that's what he did, he always put others before himself. And he was very modest, he never really talked about all the things he did for others. It was only after his death that we really found out the lengths he went to help other people."

During his time in the RUC Mr McKnight was stationed in Tynan and then Belfast, and was once labelled a hero after risking his own life to rescue people from a burning house.

"He was a very brave man, he put himself at risk to save others," added Mrs McKnight.

"He stayed a constable because he was a family man who liked to be at home with us. Then when he left he became a driving instructor, because he was really patient. He became so busy that he had to turn away work."

Mrs McKnight said that the loss of her beloved husband had been difficult to come to terms with and that he was "a big miss" to the whole family.

"I remember the day before he died, he took me flying and it was a really beautiful day," she said. "We flew over the Ards Peninsula and Portaferry where I am from, then through the mountains. I couldn't tell how long the flight was because we were enjoying it so much. But I know that I could not have loved him any more than I did that day. Stephen was the love of my life.

"But I take comfort in the fact that he died doing not just what he loved, but that he was doing something just for himself - something which he never did."

Belfast Telegraph

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