William “Pete” Knight
Test Pilot/Astronaut/Record Setter
Test pilot encounter danger in varying degrees in different flights and programs, but every pilot has to be aware of it, according to Knight. “You’re concerned, you’re scared and worried until the launch,” he said. But the pilot should be prepared and know his capabilities. “You have to be aware of the dangers. If you’re not scared and apprehensive, you’re getting too complacent and it’s going to bite you,” stated Knight.
- As a second lieutenant he flew an F-89 Scorpion and won the Allison Jet Trophy during the 1954 National Air Show in Dayton, Ohio.
- He flight tested a variety of aircraft including the F-100, F-101, F-104 and F-5 and was selected for the X-20 Dyna-Soar project, forerunner for the space shuttle.
- He was one of the 12 pilots selected for the X-15 rocket research aircraft program and in 1967 he received astronaut wings when he flew the X-15 to an altitude of 280,000 feet (over 53 miles).
- In 1968, following his record breaking Mach 6.7 (4,520 mph) speed record in October 1967 he received the Harmon Aviator’s Trophy from President Lyndon Johnson for the most significant flight of the year.
- He was the recipient of the Octave Chanute Award from the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences.
- In 1968 he was awarded the Air Force Association “Citation of Honor.”
- Flew 250 missions during Vietnam in an F-100 SuperSaber.
- Test director for F-15 Eagle at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
- Vice commander of the Air Force Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
Colonel William J. “Pete” Knight retired from the United States Air Force in 1982 after serving 32 distinguished years as a pilot and military officer.
Born in Noblesville, Indiana on November 18th, 1929, Knight attended Butler and Purdue Universities and received his commission through the aviation cadet program which he entered in 1952. Within a year after earning his wings, Knight was an experienced F-89 Scorpion pilot with the Air Defense Command. He was selected to fly the F-89 in the famed Allison Jet Trophy Race, which he won, during the 1954 National Air Show in Dayton, Ohio.
Knight’s experience as a pilot and unit maintenance officer led to his interest in attending the test pilot training program at Edwards Air Force Base, California. After learning that the program required a college degree, he entered the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio where he earned a degree in aeronautical engineering.
He graduated from the Experimental Flight Test Pilot School in 1958 and the Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in 1964. Over the next several years, Knight conducted performance, stability, refueling and weapons test work on a variety of aircraft that were undergoing evaluation and development at Edwards. Among these were the F-100, F-101, F-104 and the F-5. In addition, Knight was one of six pilots selected for the X-20 Dyna-Soar project, a program that would turn out to be the forerunner of the space shuttle vehicle.
Pete Knight’s next assignment afforded him the opportunity to fly in the high speed, high altitude X-15 program. He was one of 12 pilots who flew a trio of X-15 rocket research crafts to the fringes of space over a period of nearly 10 years. Knight piloted the stubby-wing aircraft 16 times, the first in September 1965 at a speed of 2,718 miles per hour. Alternating with other members of the X-15 pilot team, the missions got progressively faster and higher.
In 1967, Knight flew the X-15 to a record speed of 4,520 miles per hour (Mach 6.7) and received astronaut wings for another flight that reached an altitude of 280,000 feet, a little more than 53 miles. A winged aircraft had never flown faster than that particular flight in 1967. Problems associated with the craft’s ability to sustain extreme temperatures, however, resulted in the X-15 flying on just eleven more occasions. President Lyndon Johnson presented Knight with the Harmon International Aviator’s Trophy in 1969 for his record speed flight. That same year he received the Octave Chanute Award, an honor that the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences presented annually.
Knight was made a member of the Air Force Systems Command Aerospace Primus Club in 1968 for his X-15 flight test of a coating designed to prevent air friction heat from damaging the surface or structure of the rocket plane. In addition, the Air Force Association awarded Knight its “Citation of Honor.” Following the termination of the X-15 program, Pete Knight served a tour of duty in Vietnam flying the F-100 Supersabre on over 250 missions.
Upon his return to the states, Knight became Test Director for the F-15 Eagle System Program Office at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. He later served as Director of the Fighter Attack System Program Office, responsible for managing ten different aircraft weapons systems including the F-5E and F-4 fighters. Knight concluded his military career as the Vice Commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base. His decorations included the Legion of Merit with one oak leaf cluster, the Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, and the Air Medal with 10 oak leaf clusters.
After his retirement from the Air Force, Knight worked as a technical advisor for the television program Call to Glory. He served as a Vice President in Charge of Fighter Enhancement Programs for Eidetics International and also as the mayor of Palmdale, California.
He also served as the Senator (Republican) for the 17th District of California. William P. Knight died in 2004.
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