RAF Breaks Tradition With Non-Pilot Air Chief 

Air Marshal Sir Richard Knighton

Credit: UK Royal Air Force

LONDON—In a major break from recent tradition, the UK Royal Air Force has selected its first air chief who has never been a pilot.

Air Marshal Sir Richard Knighton will be appointed chief of the air staff in June, the UK Defense Ministry announced March 31. He will succeed Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston who has been in post for the last four years.

Knighton, currently the RAF’s deputy commander for capability and people since 2022, was an aircraft engineer by trade serving on the RAF’s Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft and Harrier combat aircraft fleets.

More recently he has held posts in equipment acquisition and support and been involved in strategic and capability planning as well as being a senior defense advisor to ministers.

“Under Air Marshal Sir Richard’s leadership, the Royal Air Force will be in excellent hands,” Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said. “He takes up his appointment at a crucial moment for the Royal Air Force as it evolves to meet future threats while continuing to conduct operations to protect our security and support our allies and partners.”

For decades, the role of RAF chief has been the preserve of either pilots or aircrewman, and those who have served in the front-line fast jet community. Wigston, for example, flew the Panavia Tornado.

Since 1950, only one chief of the air staff has not had a background in flying either fighters or bombers, Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford, who served from 2013 to 2016, had a background as a helicopter pilot. Prior to 1950, some of the service’s most famous chiefs, including Sir Hugh Trenchard—often described as the father of the RAF—and Sir Arthur Tedder had served in the infantry.

Senior officers have been talking about a change at the top to consider non-pilots for the chief of air staff role as part of the wider Astra transformation project to make better use of its personnel.

Knighton said he is honored to be taking up the role as chief and would “build on the modernization and phenomenal operational success” led by Wigston.

Tony Osborne

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.