A tribute to Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Knight, KCB, AFC

A tribute to Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Knight, KCB, AFC

We are very sad to share news that, on Monday 28 November 2022, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Knight, former VTST Chairman, passed away.

Sir Michael enjoyed a 36 year career in the RAF, where he gained experience in a wide variety of operational and staff roles and flew well over 100 types of aircraft, including the Avro Vulcan. He served as a frontline pilot and commander, being appointed Air Officer Commanding No. 1 Group in 1980, a role that saw him involved in the Falklands Conflict.

Sir Michael’s link to the Vulcan didn’t end when her retired from the RAF. Among his many amazing achievements was his involvement in returning Vulcan XH558 to flight as the first chairman of the Vulcan to the Sky Trust.

In 2002 Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Knight, agreed to become the first chairman of Vulcan to the Sky Trust. The huge challenge that faced the project at that time was money. First estimates were that over £3.5million would be required to pay for the restoration. Dr Robert Pleming had been onboard full-time from April 2000, leaving his high-profile post with Cisco Systems in order to devote all his energies to the return to flight project. After exploring various funding options, it was decided to prepare a bid for funding to the Heritage Lottery Fund, although at the time no other candidates aiming to restore aircraft to flight had been successful. A necessary part of the application process was the establishment of the Vulcan to the Sky Trust, as the HLF would only accept bids from registered charities.

VTS Trustee, Sir Donald Spiers said: “I first met Mike in 1967 when he was commanding the far east strike wing at RAF Tengah in Singapore. He had been commissioned in 1954 having served in the university air squadron while an undergraduate at Liverpool University. He had a stellar career including commanding 32 Squadron in Cyprus and RAF Laarbruch in Germany. He was SASO at RAF Strike Command and then AOC 1 Group before becoming AMSO on the Air Force Board. He retired from the RAF in 1989 as an Air Chief Marshal. He became a non-executive director of several companies and a trustee of many charities. He also became President of the Air League. As Chairman of VTST he masterminded fundraising for the return to flight of XH558 and hounded Gerald and me to become trustees.”

The professionalism of Sir Michael, Robert and the team resulted in the award of a £2.75 million grant in 2003 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which proved a major contribution to the eventual £7 million cost of restoration.

At the time, the HLF’s Chair, Liz Forgan, said: “In the normal way of things we do not restore aircraft to flight but the HLF was really impressed with the imaginative way in which the Trust’s new proposal will let as many people as possible learn about this important part of their heritage.”

Sir Michael Knight thanked the Heritage Lottery Fund for: “their vision in seeing the significance of the restoration to flight of the last remaining Vulcan and the telling of the Cold War story. ‘Victory for Vulcan’ is so apt as the V-force played such a vital part in the Cold War, which was a global influence from 1945 until 1991. We are delighted and as custodians of this awesome part of British Heritage we feel the responsibility of our role. Thank you to everyone who has played a part in this project and has made today possible.”

By May 2006 economic resources were being stretched to breaking point with cost increases and less than anticipated commercial sponsorship. A review of costs and liabilities in July left the Trustees no option; on 1st August the full-time staff were placed on a month’s notice, and a figure in excess of £1.2 million was needed to avoid closure of the project.

Despite the short time available, the Trust, with the drive, energy and enthusiasm of XH558’s supporters in the Vulcan to the Sky Club, galvanised media coverage, and the response to it was dramatic. Donations and pledges poured in, and in just 21 days the total was achieved, with a magnificent donation of £500,000 coming from British philanthropist Sir Jack Hayward.

Sir Gerald Howarth, VTS Trustee said: “Mike was responsible for getting me into this project. He pestered me for days (my sister-in-law in the car with us said, as the phone rang yet again as we were on holiday together, “If that’s your friend Mike again I’m going to disconnect the phone!”). He pleaded with me: didn’t I have rich friends in the Tory party who could help, and I finally gave in. As I sat down to compose the emails it really dawned on me just how important the project was. I saw a connection between the mighty Vulcan and Margaret Thatcher, my boss and heroine. She was a staunch advocate of the deterrent and restored Britain’s standing in the world by her determination to drive the Argentinians out of the Falklands, a campaign in which Mike was involved – AOC No. 1 Group. Thus, I appealed enthusiastically to 3 party supporters, one of whom was of course Sir “Union Jack” Hayward.  A few days later, as I was dozing off watching the 10 o’clock news, the phone rang. Lizzie picked it up, came downstairs, handed it to me and said:  “It’s someone called Jack Hayward.

I stood smartly to attention. “I’ve got your email and am very sorry to hear that you are having to make redundancies on the project,” he said.  (The Trust had already served notices to quit but not acted upon them yet.)  Before I could respond, Sir Jack came back with words I’d not heard before – or since – “Count me in for half a million!” Despite the late hour, at 10.30 pm I called Mike and said “Hold the P45s!” And Sir Jack was as good as his word and arguably saved the project. It was amusing to read a few days later in the Daily Express that they had taken the call because, as far as I was aware, they were not at that point stationed in my Farnborough home! Sir Jack’s generosity was undoubtedly a major factor in preserving an iconic legend for posterity.

Thank you, Mike, for your persistence with me and your dedication to the cause.”

Roll out 2006 scaled 1
31 August 2006: Vulcan XH558 rolling out of the hangar for the first time in 7 years
Sir Michael Knight scaled 1
31 August 2006: Vulcan to the Sky Trust Chairman, Sir Michael Knight, thanking all those who had made the occasion possible

Several thousand supporters watched the roll out of Vulcan XH558 at Bruntingthorpe on 31 August 2006, just days after Sir Jack Hayward’s donation reversed a decision to close the project through lack of funds.

Margaret Thatcher
March 2007: (L to R) Dr Robert Pleming, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Sir Gerald Howarth, SIr Michael Knight

In March 2007, Margaret Thatcher visited the project and was introduced to Chief Pilot, Squadron Leader Martin Withers DFC—the man she had sent on that epic raid to the Falklands.

Avro Vulcan XH558 took to the sky for her first flight after restoration on Thursday 18 October 2007.

At the roll out in 2006, Trust Chairman Sir Michael thanked all those who had made the occasion possible. Everyone at Vulcan to the Sky Trust thanks you Sir Michael for your dedication to returning Vulcan XH558 to the sky, giving joy to us and to millions of people who have seen and heard her fly.

Blue Skies Sir.


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