Written by Katherine Williams and photographs taken by Jenny Beckwith
I met with Joe Knighton, Senior Flight Instructor for Mareeba Flight Training Centre one wet Mareeba morning and his opening line was that “God gives us skills and abilities to use and I feel it is our duty to offer those skills to others.” Joe explained that this was a philosophy that both he and his wife Emma live by.
Joe’s first flight was at the tender age of 14 as an Air Cadet, resulting in his first solo flight at 18 years old. Joe was all set to enter the Air Force, particularly excelling in the fitness side of the military, but at 19 had a debilitating motorcycle accident, which left him paralysed. Joe simply refused to accept the fact that he was paralysed and also refused to follow the rules, often found trying to escape his hospital ward, much to the annoyance of the nurses. He says “he simply didn’t care and his sheer stubbornness got him back on his feet.” So Joe was immobilised for three months only, then used a wheelchair for the next three months. He then used his car in place of his wheelchair, ensuring he planned his day, making sure his car was not far away. He firmly believes that there is no point dwelling on what happened; he just had to get on with life.
At this time, he also made two important decisions in his life. Firstly, that he would not treat life too seriously and secondly, “he would stop caring if his disability upset you, because that was your problem and not his.” He planned to try and make a difference in even one person’s life and that would make everything worthwhile. He explained that whilst in hospital everything he was told was very measured “you are likely to be in that wheelchair for the rest of your life.” He wanted to bring hope to other people in Spinal Units, so if they heard about him and that he had conquered his disability, that they would then realise that it is possible for them to as well. Joe believes “that you are greater than the sum of your parts,” that even though he excelled at sports, there was more to him than just sports.
So Joe went to South Africa just one short year after his accident, which was where he gained his Private Pilot’s License through the Flying Scholarship for Disabled people. He then went back again the following year as Flight Operations Manager. His cadetship there paid for him to attain his Commercial Pilot’s License and Instrument Rating. Joe saw MAF in action in Africa, where they were carrying out Medivacs for land mine clearance, which he thought was very worthwhile.
He then left flying in 2004 until 2009 as he needed a break from flying and worked as a Sales Man. During this time, he met his wife Emma and started to settle down. At that time Emma was an Anesthetist for children’s open heart surgery operations and this made Joe look at his life and think he needed to do something more worthwhile. Hence, he came back to flying. So he re-qualified and became a flying instructor in the UK in 2011, which led very quickly to the role of Chief Flying Instructor.
Emma and Joe always liked the idea of humanitarian work, but felt it was something that was not possible after having children. This was not specific to MAF or even mission, but it was something they were drawn to. However, after some time they thought that their children were still very young and why not look into this type of work, taking the children with them. So in 2015, after asking MAF could they be of any use to them? Joe and Emma joined MAF. Joe said that MAF had been the logical choice to approach and the only people he had spoken to. He was charged with opening the PNG Training Centre, but never made it there, as Joe’s skills were needed at the Mareeba Training Centre, which was only a few months old when he arrived.
Joe’s main responsibilities in Mareeba now are specialising in multi engine instrument rating training and instructor training, which enables him to carry out advanced training, internal upgrades, course development and mentoring junior staff. He is also a CASA approved flight examiner
Joe’s philosophy on life is that there is no point dwelling on the difficult areas of your life and will certainly not be told what to do. He says “God decides what I am to do and I put complete trust in Him.” As for the future, Joe and Emma will go where God decides.