John Hamilton Macknight was born in Melbourne on 17 June 1937 to Charles (architect and vigneron) and Margaret (nee Cumming) Macknight of Rutherglen. Schooling was at Albury Grammar, Geelong Grammar and wine making at Roseworthy Agricultural College. During his formative years John displayed a strong interest in flying and built many flying models. After Roseworthy it was jackarooing in western New South Wales and flying lessons in Tiger Moths at Walgett Aero Club gaining his Private Pilot Licence in 1960. He was then awarded a Commonwealth Flying Scholarship to obtain his Commercial Pilot’s Licence.
In 1960 John took a position with AML&F as a stockman and attended livestock sales all over western New South Wales. This meant long hours driving on very ordinary roads. At times, aircraft were hired which led John to convince AML&F to acquire a new Piper Cherokee 235.
In late 1964 John entered into a 50/50 partnership with Bill Davey of Davey Air Services in Dubbo, forming Davey Air Services, Deniliquin. The catalyst for the new air charter venture was an arrangement with a large grazing enterprise needing air charters to stock sales. A new Piper Comanche 250 was acquired and the air charter business took off and remains in operation today, although under a different name.
A year later the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) decided to seal the gravel strip at Deniliquin. This impacted the service of Victorian Air Coaches (a division of Ansett–ANA Airlines) because when it was wet, the DC3 could not operate and Ansett chartered John to fly its passengers to connect with flights at Griffith. At that time Sir Reginald Ansett used to fly to Deniliquin regularly as he had a farm nearby and got to know John and his operation well.
In March 1966, John and Bill Davey were invited to a meeting with Sir Reginald in Melbourne. Ansett knew he could not continue to operate DC3s on the thin regional routes and wanted to set up feeder services from smaller centres to the larger Ansett-ANA ports. His plan was to provide operators like Davey Air Services with Piaggio P166 aircraft and they would provide crew and operate the services.
When Sir Donald Anderson, then Director-General of Civil Aviation, heard of the plan he plainly indicated he could not allow it – Anderson having restrictions on being able to issue an airline licence to an operator other than Ansett-ANA or TAA under the Two Airline Policy. However, under political pressure, Anderson sought a way within the regulatory framework to make it happen. He arranged a special concession under Air Navigation Regulation 203 which exempted a licensed charter operator from holding an airline licence to conduct regular public transport air services. This was a game changing event, heralding the beginning of a new regulatory regime allowing regular services to regional communities in aircraft smaller than that operated by the major airlines. It ultimately led to Supplementary Airlines Licences and later Low Capacity Air Operator’s Certificates for operations with aircraft up to 38 seats.
Opal Air in South Australia received the first ANR 203 Exemption with Davey Air Services soon after in 1967 for northern NSW services. Riverina NSW services were taken up by Masling Air Services of Cootamundra, but it soon went into receivership with Davey Air Services – Deniliquin taking over the run in December 1969 with a Cherokee Six aircraft. Ansett provided all ground services, pricing and ticketing, John provided the aircraft and crew. Six months later John acquired 100 percent of the business and changed the name to Macknight Airlines. He continued to do charter services under the Davey banner and ultimately his own.
A new Piper Seneca twin was placed on the route in 1974 and the service extended to Tocumwal and Hay in 1976 with a new Rockwell Aero Commander “Shrike”. This enabled morning and evening schedules connecting at Wagga Wagga for a day return service to Sydney in both directions.
Becoming a regular public transport operator was a challenge. The Macknight operation was small and basic and could afford little overhead. Without the practical approach of DCA Examiner of Airman, Bill Winter and DCA approving John as Maintenance Controller and issuing him with DCA NSW Region’s first Maintenance Authority, enabled him to supervise, carry out and authorise a wide range of maintenance activities. This was a very practical way of achieving an effective and safe operation. Macknight Airlines never cancelled a service for a mechanical issue nor experienced an in-flight engine shut down over its 24 years of operation.
In 1991 John accepted an offer to acquire the airline from Western NSW Airlines. The deal left John with the Shrike and charter business. However, Western NSW Airlines went in to receivership in 1993 and unfortunately this meant the demise of the regular service linking Deniliquin and Hay with Wagga Wagga and Sydney.
In July 1997 John sold the charter business including the aircraft to Nigel Wettenhall who has retained and grown the charter business under the name Wettenhall Air Services.
In September 1997 the Civil Aviation Safety Authority’s Flying Unit, which undertook navigation aid and lighting testing across Australia, was disbanded. After training, John became the only non-CASA person qualified to commission and test airport lighting installations. From 1997 to 2011, John undertook hundreds of commissions and tests on most airports across Australia with his Piper Comanche 260B.
John has maintained a broader interest in the aviation industry and the community. He joined the Australian Commercial Flying Organisation (subsequently General Aviation Association) and was a founding member and director of the Regional Airlines Association of Australia – now the Regional Aviation Association of Australia, where he is a Life Member. A long term owner of both single and twin Piper Comanche aircraft, John joined the Comanche Society in 1968, was awarded life membership and remains actively involved. In 1997 John received the Aviation Safety Foundation’s Certificate of Air Safety for his contribution to aviation safety.
In 2011 John received the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to the aviation industry and the community and in 2014 he received the inaugural “Wings Award” for a Life Time Achievement in General Aviation through “Australian Flying”. The access road in to Deniliquin Airport was named “Macknight Drive” in his honour in 2008 in further recognition of his aviation service and major commitment to the local community.
John married Jan Burke in Sydney in 1964 and they have two sons, a daughter, six grandchildren and one great grandchild. They owned and operated an irrigated rice farm at Deniliquin for many years but now live a quiet life on the banks of the Edward River in Deniliquin. John has never stopped flying and now owns a Flight Design CTLS Recreational Aircraft which he and Jan use to tour all over Australia.