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Knotts (’67) honored as Master Pilot after 50 years in the air

by Chuck Gordon

Buddy Knotts’ career has always been up in the air. After learning to fly helicopters as a pilot in Vietnam, Knotts made a career out of flying – dusting crops, transporting VIPs, and providing aerial coverage for movies, TV shows and sporting events. Last week, he earned a rare distinction from the FAA: the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.

Back in the mid-1960s, Zelotes “Buddy” Knotts (’67) was going to be a pharmacist, like his dad back in Myrtle Beach. He got a pre-pharmacy degree at Wingate Junior College and entered medical school in Charleston, South Carolina.

But one day he met a high-school friend for lunch, and the course of his life changed. The friend, who worked for Delta Airlines, let him walk through the plane she was working on – back in the days of lax airline security – and after Knotts slid into the captain’s seat, his true calling presented itself. Something just clicked.

“I sat down and it was like a lightbulb went off, like an epiphany,” Knotts says. “It was like, ‘I don’t have any idea what any of this does or even what makes this thing fly, but I’ve got to find out more about it.’”

Buddy Knotts laughing during Master Pilot ceremony

After studying a few books on flying, Knotts volunteered for the U.S. Army and scored highly on the aerodynamics test to get into the helicopter-pilot program. As a member of the 189th Assault Helicopter Company, Knotts completed his first solo flight on March 19, 1969, and he’s continued to fly ever since.

Last week, Knotts, 72, became the 127th person in North Carolina to be honored by the Federal Aviation Administration with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award. The award goes to pilots who have “exhibited professionalism, skill, and aviation expertise for at least 50 years.” There are 5,436 master pilots nationwide.

Knotts never did get that pharmacy degree, but he has forged an interesting and varied career as a helicopter pilot. He started out in Charlotte flying over areas of new timber spreading fertilizer and removing foliage from rights-of-way, and eventually he latched on with Suncoast Helicopters in Tampa, Florida, which used helicopter pilots for a variety of courier jobs.

One of his main tasks with Suncoast was hovering over the tops of banks to hook bags of canceled checks, which they collected and delivered to banks’ operations centers, much like steam trains used to collect bags of mail back in the 1800s. He also delivered a different type of valuable asset, transporting VIPs such as Prince Charles (to a polo match) and Paul McCartney (to the Everglades) during their trips to Florida.

In Florida, Knotts was also introduced to aerial photography, and in the 1990s he decided to move back to the Carolinas, founding Helivision, a Concord-based company that provides aerial still photography and videography for the film and sports industries. The company employs four helicopters and an airplane to provide aerial footage for films, such as The Hunger Games and Cold Mountain; TV shows, including Homeland, Nashville and The Walking Dead; and countless sporting events, including the NASCAR All-Star race and the Preakness horse race just this past weekend.

Spotless record

Knotts has an artist’s eye, and he’s learned over the years how to get the best shot possible. He has won four Emmys for his “aerial coordination” work. “I’m not a professional, but I certainly think I have a pretty good eye for the lens in the camera,” he says. “I don’t know if I’m an artist. There is an art to it. There are a lot of great helicopter pilots out there, but there’s not that many out there that do the kind of work we do. Most are on the West Coast of the country.”

Unlike many of those West Coast operations, Helivision is a nationwide provider of aerial photography. The company regularly loads up their copters and 8K cameras and carts them cross country to shoot races and TV shows.

Knotts is gradually handing over more and more responsibility for Helivision to his son, Kevin, but he continues to come to work every day and also continues to fly, just not quite as much as he used to. “I’ve slowly been passing the torch,” he says. “It’s hard to give it up.”

Buddy Knotts as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam

Knotts has recorded more than 20,000 hours in the air as a pilot with zero accidents. But that’s not to say he hasn’t crashed. As a pilot during Vietnam, he admits to having been shot down “several times.” He walked away relatively unscathed from those harrowing experiences, thanks to his military training and naturally cool disposition. As the helicopter goes into a tailspin, he says, “you just hang on.” He wound up in the hospital only one time as a result of combat, after injuring his back in a crash.

The key to maintaining a record spotless enough to earn Master Pilot recognition is preparation, Knotts says. “You don’t just jump in it and go,” he says of his aircraft. “There’s a lot of prep work and preflighting. It’s a testament to the guys here who are part of our maintenance department.

The Helivision aircraft are like family. “We treat them like they’re people, not machines,” Knotts says.

Eddie Shields, an FAA Safety Team program manager who was on hand as Knotts received his award at the Concord Regional Airport on Friday, can testify to the pristine condition of Knotts’ aircraft and to his preparedness. Shields worked as Knotts’ FAA maintenance inspector for a time. “He made my job easy,” Shields says.

Knotts may get into the cockpit less frequently than ever, but it’s going to be hard to keep him from flying completely. “It’s a passion,” he says. “The helicopter is my happy place.”

Knotts, who’s the third generation of Zelotes Rufus Knottses (named after Simon the Zealot), is a perfect example of passion leading to success. When he decided to fly helicopters rather than become a pharmacist, he felt like he was letting his father down. His father said not to worry.

“What you need to understand is that I’m proud of you for seeking something that you think you really want to do,” Knotts’ father told him. “Whatever you think you want to do and you can thrive at is really what you should do. You aren’t hurting my feelings because you aren’t a pharmacist. Your happiness is the most important thing to your mother and I.”

May 20, 2019