Lieutenant Colonel – U.S. Army Air Corps
World War II (1942-1950)
U.S. Air Force Reserves (1950-1963)
There wasn’t a drum roll as 92-year-old former pilot, John Knebel, accepted the Federal Aviation Administration’s Wright Award for flying 50 years without an accident, but there might as well have been.
As the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and former commercial airline pilot received a plaque and a certificate at the FAA’s flight standards district office in Alameda, the onlookers burst into spontaneous applause. Members of the Bel Marin Keys resident’s family and aviation professionals who filled the room alternated between laughter and applause as Knebel, whose comedic skills appear to match his aviation abilities, spoke off the cuff.
Presented with the two-inch-thick file of his FAA records, retired pilot John Knebel of Bel Marin Keys, Calif. deadpanned, “After you’ve seen all this, you’re still going to give me the award?”
Knebel got his pilot’s license at the age of 19. Planes were nothing new to Knebel and he followed in his father’s footsteps, a World War I pilot, and joined the Army Air Corps as a civilian pilot. Later, in 1942, after accepting a commission in the U.S. Army Air Corps, the forerunner of the Air Force, he served in Africa, and was briefly assigned as personal pilot to the French general Charles de Gaulle. “The general and I didn’t get along too well,” Knebel said. “He was a smoker, and I used to fly higher than necessary to get to the altitude where smoking was forbidden, just to get on his nerves.”
During WWII, Knebel was primarily an Air Transport Command ferry pilot. He was among the first pilots to get checked out in the Lockheed P80, known as the “Shooting Star” and America’s first jet fighter. Knebel served eight years of active duty and 13 years as a reserve officer with the Air Force.
After leaving the Airforce, he joined Convair as a production and engineering test pilot, where he worked for 8 years. Choosing to work as a test pilot meant the return to civilian life wasn’t as safe and secure as one might think. He worked on the Convair XFY-1 Experimental VTOL “Pogo ”,the B-36 Peacemaker and B-58 Hustler amongst others. While test-piloting the Convair Dart, an F-102, “I shot myself down firing my own rockets,” Knebel said.
“I was testing the aircraft and fired all the rockets at the same time. It blew off the bottom of the airplane and knocked out one set of controls,” Knebel said. In the spirit of Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger, the Bay Area resident who successfully ditched his disabled plane in the Hudson River in 2009, “I had a choice between landing it and bailing out. I chose to land and I got it down successfully” at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, Knebel said.
After 15 years as a test pilot, he became a pilot at Trans International Airlines, an airline that offered charter service from and within the United States. He held this job from 1967 to 1981.
Knebel, said a jocular flight attendant once told passengers, “Buckle up, you’re flying with Evel Knievel today,” referring to the daredevil stunt motorcyclist of the 1970s. “It made people nervous. The company told us not to do that again.”
Knebel retired from Trans International in 1981 at the age of 60. He continued to fly occasionally on rented airplanes until 1993. He holds the transcontinental speed record for R3Y 8-engine Tradewind flying boat
The award bestowed upon Knebel is formally known as the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, recognizing pilots who have demonstrated professionalism, skill and aviation expertise by maintaining safe operations for 50 years or more. To win the award, Knebel had to provide two references of professionals who flew with him, among other things.
“You missed the Wright Brothers’ flight anniversary by one day,” noted a member of the FAASTeam, which is the FAA’s safety team, at the event. The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, built the world’s first successful airplane and made the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight on Dec. 17, 1903.
“We didn’t want to steal their thunder,” Knebel said.
Interview by Janis Mara on December 18, 2012.