For reporters, the flight home is often a chance to decompress. It’s the first opportunity to reflect on a story and to process our emotions.
It’s the point at which we step back from our deadlines and from the pressure. It’s the point at which it can all sink in.
This week, the long flight home took me from the devastating shooting in El Paso, Texas, to Washington, D.C., with a layover in Dallas.
Dallas became the place where the weight of the world seemed to melt away — the place where the good outweighed the bad for the first time in days.
When we arrived at our gate at Dallas’ Love Field, I noticed a few camera crews waiting. I didn’t think much of it. Perhaps they were waiting for a politician or a newsmaker.
A few minutes later, a gate agent from Southwest Airlines appeared and started handing out American flags.
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Then came the announcement over the P.A. system. A gate agent, his voice cracking, told us about the very special arrival we were about to witness.
Our inbound plane from Oakland was carrying the remains of an American airman, Col. Roy Knight Jr., who was shot down in combat during the Vietnam War in 1967.
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The agent took a long pause as he seemed to collect his words.
“Col. Knight ejected from his aircraft, but no parachute was seen deploying,” he explained. “A search was undertaken but could not find him.”
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The agent again took a long pause before explaining that recently, his remains were discovered, identified and returned to the United States.
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“Today, Col. Knight is coming home to Dallas,” said the agent, growing more emotional as he continued explaining what we were about to witness.
At that point, we were told that before deploying, Col. Knight had said farewell to his family at this very airport. He waved goodbye to his five-year-old son. It would be the last time he would see any of them.
By this point in the story, the terminal had fallen silent.
T.S.A. agents stood solemnly in a line near the gate. The gate agent held the microphone in his hands, taking a long pause and a deep breath. He struggled to say what came next: “Today, the pilot of the plane bringing Col. Knight home is his son.”
There were quiet gasps. A few people burst into tears.
We were told the aircraft would arrive in about 15 minutes. The crowd grew larger, with noses pressed up to the glass for a view of the gate.
As Flight 1220 from Oakland taxied toward the jet bridge, two airport firetrucks provided a sombre water salute while the ground crew stood in formation.
We all watched silently as the flag-draped casket was unloaded from the cargo hold, met by what we could only assume to be Col. Knight’s family and a military guard.
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Airports rarely see moments of quiet — but for a few brief minutes, Dallas Love Field fell absolutely silent.
There were no garbled announcements, no clickity-clack of rolling suitcases over the tile floor, no shouting over cellphones.
People stood quietly at the window, wiping away tears, taking in a moment few rarely get to see.
It was peaceful, it was beautiful and it was a privilege to watch.
As I sat on the plane, I googled Col. Knight’s story. According to his obituary, he “was shot down while attacking a target on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. He was initially listed as Missing in Action until being declared Killed in Action in 1974. During that time, he was promoted to Colonel.”
Born in Texas in 1931, Roy Abner Knight Jr. was the sixth of eight children, the obit states. He joined the U.S. Air Force just days after his 17th birthday. He started off as a clerk and typist at various U.S. bases in Southeast Asia but eventually attended officer candidate school in the U.S. By 1953, he was a commissioned officer, and in 1957, he began flight training in Texas.
He shipped overseas in January 1967, reporting to the 602nd Fighter Squadron (Commando) at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base. He flew combat missions almost every day until he was shot down on May 19, 1967. His obit states that he was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart and six air medals.
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But his final honour would involve his own family. His son Bryan — that same five-year-old who had waved goodbye to him when he left for overseas in 1967 — is now a captain with Southwest Airlines. And it was Bryan who flew home his father 52 years after that goodbye.
One cannot fathom what it must be like to wait half a century for closure, or what this moment must have been like for his family. Sadly, some would not be there to see the homecoming. According to his obit, his wife Patricia — “the love of his life” — passed away in 2008. His own parents died within three years of his disappearance.
We are so fortunate that they decided to share this moment with us, especially in a week when we could all use a little more hope.
Jackson Proskow is the Washington bureau chief for Global National.