This Southwest Airlines Pilot Flew His Father’s Remains Home—52 Years After He Was Shot Down
A discovery at a crash site in Laos leads to a final ceremony, and the end of a mystery.
On August 8, when Southwest Airlines Flight 1220 touched down at Dallas Love Field around 11 a.m., the Boeing 737 was full of passengers. The airliner was also carrying a flag-draped casket carrying the remains of Colonel Roy A. Knight Jr., a U.S. Air Force pilot who had been shot down during the Vietnam War on May 19, 1967. The man sitting in the cockpit’s left seat was Knight’s own son, Captain Bryan Knight, who spoke with senior associate editor Diane Tedeschi on August 21.
Air & Space: What do you remember about the day you saw your father off at Dallas Love Field before his 1967 deployment to an airbase in Thailand (flying the A-1 for the U.S. Air Force)?
Knight: It was just me and my mother. My siblings had gone to school. I was five so I was in kindergarten, I guess. I remember becoming impatient because we were there for quite a while. I remember my dad finally saying “here” and giving me 35 cents, and saying, “Go buy something.” I remember there was kind of a sadness to it. There was this heaviness. But the thing I remember the most—as we were walking back to the car—my mother was just sobbing. As a little kid to see your mom crying—it scared me.
When was your father, Colonel Roy A. Knight Jr., identified by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency?
About May  is when we were notified that they had been at his crash site [in Laos], and that they had actually recovered human remains—although they didn’t know if it was him. Once they took those remains to Hawaii—to the Central Identification Laboratory there—it was some weeks later that they called us and told us that it definitely was our father.
Up to that point, had you given up hope that your father might be returned?
Well, honestly, yeah. I’d gotten to the point where I didn’t think it would happen. And when it did, it was just surprising and overwhelming. Wonderful in a lot of ways—and reliving it in other ways.
The repatriation flight was a regularly scheduled Southwest Airlines flight from Oakland to Dallas on August 8—and yet it was anything but routine for you, flying as the captain. What was going through your mind?
The first thing that went through my mind was—as important as this flight is—my first duty is to make this uber-professional. The flight itself was very standard. We do these flights as a company: We do carry [the remains of] servicemen and -women. There was nothing unusual about the flight until I turned the corner going into Gate 12 at Dallas Love. There was a wall of Southwest employees standing there—quietly, reverently, waiting for us. And that gave me a lump in my throat.
The whole thing got such a positive reaction on social media, a medium that is often used to criticize all manner of things, people, and events.
You’re exactly right. People kept telling me what you just said: That we’re so inundated with the negative—that’s what gets people’s attention. And something like this was so universally supported by everybody—on any side of any issue.
After your father got to Vietnam, it’s been reported that he was flying strike missions almost nonstop.
Yeah, all those guys back then were too. I’ve got some audio tapes that he sent us from [Thailand]. And he’s saying, “We’re working really hard. We’re flying almost every day.” Which he was fine with, because there wasn’t anything to do if you weren’t flying.
What can you tell me about the day your family received word that your father had been shot down?
I remember that day very well. It was catastrophic for the family. We lived in this little tiny rural house, this little A-frame [in Texas]. And we went from this quiet little rural existence to this thing that just exploded with all these people in the house. Everybody’s crying and at that point, your life changes forever. For us, at that instant, when you find out that he is shot down and he’s missing, your duty as a family is to have hope, and that is your duty from then on. No matter what you hear. No matter what anybody says, you have to have hope.
How did you come to have a career in aviation?
I was very interested in aviation when I was young. After my first airplane ride, I was like, “This is the best thing ever.” But my mother said: “You will not go in the military. You will not go in the Air Force.” I accepted that as a little kid. When I got older, I found out that these decisions have to be my own. And I went that route that my mother was not happy about, obviously. I went into the Air Force. In fact, I flew the A-10 for a while, which is basically the airplane that took over where my father’s airplane left off. The A-1 is what he flew, and then I flew the A-10, and trained for the same type of missions.
There’s a photo that’s been published of your father sitting in the cockpit of a military aircraft, and he looks very much like the stereotypical fighter pilot. What do you think when you see that photo?
I look at that photo a bit differently than everybody else because I spent so much time in cockpits like that. So I see a guy that’s just cruising along and—back then they didn’t call it a selfie—but he’s like, “I’m going to take a picture for the family.” There’s no telling where he’s going to: He’s probably flying a combat sortie to or from the target area. That photo was developed the month he was shot down, so that was probably the last picture ever taken of him. There is no telling what he endured the day that picture was taken. Was he shot at? Was he rescuing a downed airman, which was one of his jobs. Was he protecting ground troops? I can imagine the possibilities because I’ve trained for those kinds of missions—although I never had to go to combat. But just spending so much time in those cockpits, I know what it must have felt like for him.
I’m looking at the picture now, and it does look as if he’d probably seen a lot at that point.
Yeah, I think he had. They were taking losses so I know he felt at risk. But he still got up and worked hard and did what they asked of him. Just like all of them did. That’s pretty heroic in my eyes. Every serviceman and -woman over there, they did that. They went on even though they were at great risk. They still do it every day.