Tragic pilot had flown wife day before crash

Stephen McKnight had a full pilot's licence and had been flying for five years
Stephen McKnight had a full pilot's licence and had been flying for five years

A former police officer killed when his light aircraft crashed in Northern Ireland last year was a good, safe and meticulous pilot, a coroner’s court has been told.

Stephen McKnight suffered catastrophic chest injuries when the two-seater microlight nose-dived from about 100ft at Newtownards Airport in Co Down last April.

The wreckage of Stephen McKnight's light aircraft after the crash in Newtownards in April last year

The wreckage of Stephen McKnight's light aircraft after the crash in Newtownards in April last year

An inquest in Belfast heard how the 55-year-old father-of-two was probably incapacitated by an undetected heart problem which could have struck at any time.

Coroner Joe McCrisken said: “I am satisfied to the required standards that Mr McKnight was unconscious when the plane made the move to the left due to his heart disease, and that the unconsciousness resulted in the crash and injuries which caused his death.”

He added: “In the words of the accident investigators, Mr McKnight was a good, safe and meticulous pilot who took flying seriously. I echo all those sentiments.

“Stephen’s undetected heart disease could not have been known to anyone.”

The inquest heard that the day before his death, Mr McKnight had flown his wife Rosalind over the Ards Peninsula in the plane which he co-owned with a group of friends.

Choking back tears, she recalled: “He was a very careful person.

“I was up the day before with him and I enjoyed it. It was a really, really good day.

“We were up for a couple of hours; flew over Portaferry and then along the coast, through the mountains, then back to the airfield.”

Afterwards, Mr McKnight’s widow paid tribute to her husband of 32 years.

She said: “He was kind, generous and thoughtful, meticulous and the love of my life. He was there for everybody.

“I was so proud of him, he was amazing. He was a big presence and he will be greatly missed.

“We take some comfort from the fact that when he died, he was doing something he loved, and that he was doing something for himself – because he was always doing things for other people.

“We also take comfort from hearing that he did not suffer.”

In his findings, the coroner concluded: “It is deeply tragic for the family that it happened while he was in a plane. But he was doing something that he loved when that happened.

“I would like to express my condolences on the tragic death of a good man.

“He was a good husband, a good father, a good pilot and a good police officer.”

According to a post-mortem examination, Mr McKnight’s aorta was torn in four places – a fatal injury resulting from the impact of the collision.

He also sustained multiple fractures to his limbs and ribs.

Dr James Lyness, deputy state pathologist for Northern Ireland, said the pilot had an unusually enlarged heart and degenerative narrowing of the arteries.

Microscopic analysis found the early signs of a blood clot which could have caused debilitating angina-type symptoms mid-air, the court heard.

Dr Lyness said: “Had this man been walking down the street and dropped dead there would have been no question, I would have been able to say that he died of a heart attack.”

Mr McKnight, from Hillsborough, Co Down, had been working as driving instructor at the time of his death.

He held a full pilot’s licence and had taken up the hobby after being given flying lessons as a retirement gift from his two sons Gavin, 30, and Michael, 32, five years earlier.

On the morning of April 7, 2015, he had been building up flying hours, in line with the licence renewal conditions, and was practising circuits.

Weather conditions were described as excellent, with little wind or cloud.

In a report, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) said Mr McKnight may have been incapacitated by a sudden medical event after a Royal Airforce pathologist tasked to review the case found he had considerable enlargement of the heart and moderate degenerative narrowing of the arteries which could have caused “distracting symptoms”.

Eyewitnesses also described how no attempts were made to recover the plane when it dropped.

In a statement read to the court, Ulster Flying Club member James Dunlop recalled seeing the aircraft nose-dive at about 80mph or 90mph, hitting ground within 20 seconds.

John Hughes, a trustee of the Newtownards Microlight Group, said the microlight was well maintained and had new propeller blades fitted just two weeks before the crash.

Mr McCrisken also praised the actions of the airport staff and emergency services, whom he said were swiftly on the scene, as well as the efforts of medics at the Ulster Hospital.