WILLIAM J. KNIGHT
During the course of his sixteen flights in the X-15, William “Pete” Knight experienced perhaps the most notable event of all the pilots who flew the airplane. On October 3, 1967, he achieved Mach 6.7, the fastest speed attained in the X-15.
By virtue of this flight, Pete Knight still holds today the world’s speed record in a winged, powered aircraft.
On this same flight, the X-15 was coated with a white ablative heat shield. Attached underneath the X-15 was a dummy model of NASA’s high-speed research engine (HRE), part of a research program to develop a supersonic combustion ramjet engine (scramjet). During the course of the test, the shock wave from the engine cowling impinged on the bottom surface of the X-15. The intense aerodynamic heating in the impingement region burned through the attachment pylon, separating the dummy scramjet from the airplane. Had the dummy engine remained attached any longer to the airplane, the shock wave would have burned a hole into the primary structure of the fuselage
and most likely would have resulted in destruction of the X-15 in flight. Moreover, this was the last flight of the X-15A-2. The airplane is now on permanent display in the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
Pete Knight was born on November 18, 1929, in Noblesville, Indiana. At the age of twenty – one, he enlisted in the Air Force, and he obtained his pilot’s wings in 1953. He was assigned to the 438th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, flying Northrop F-89 Scorpions. While flying the F-89, he entered the National Air Show at Dayton,
Ohio, in 1954 and won the prestigious Allison Jet Trophy, becoming one of the youngest pilots to win the award. He then began his engineering study program, and he graduated from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1958 with a
bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering.
With his career on a fast track, he graduated from the Air Force Test Pilot School that same year. Assigned to Edwards Air Force Base, he was a project test pilot for the F-100, F-101 Voodoo, F-104 Starfighter, T-38, and F-5.
The Air Force recognized Knight’s expert piloting ability by selecting him in 1960 to be one of the six test pilots for the X-20 Dyna-Soar, a winged orbital space vehicle that was an early precursor to the Space Shuttle. The X-20 program was canceled in 1963, but Knight went ahead to complete the Air Force astronaut training program at Edwards Air Force Base. With this background, Pete Knight became the tenth X-15 test pilot, and he had his first flight in the airplane on September 30, 1965. He flew the X-15 sixteen times. On October 17, 1967, he achieved an altitude of 280,500 feet, qualifying him for official astronaut status.
On June 29, 1967, Knight experienced total power failure while going through 107,000 feet at Mach 4.17. All onboard systems shut down.
He coasted to a maximum altitude of 173,000 feet and calmly set up a visual landing approach. He resorted to the old “seat-of-the-pants” flying and glided safely to an emergency landing at Mud Lake, Nevada. For this expert example of flying, he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross.
On July 16, 1968, Knight had a hydraulic gauge malfunction during boost, which required him to push over to an alternate flight profile, which is the planned variation of speed, altitude, and location for the flight of the aircraft. On his glide back to Edwards, he experienced unexpected shaking and vibrations. His last flight in the X-15 was on September 13, 1968; this was the 198th flight of X-15, the next to last flight of the program.
Pete Knight went on to a stellar Air Force career. He went to Southeast Asia in 1969 and completed a total of 253 combat flights in the F-100. His testing career was then extended to the F-15 program at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base as test director; he became the tenth pilot to fly the F-15 Eagle. He then returned to Edwards in 1979 as vice commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center. After thirty-two years of service and more than 6,000 hours in the cockpits of more than a hundred different aircraft, he retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1982.
Knight became the only X-15 pilot to go into politics. In 1984, he was elected to the city council of Palmdale, California, and he became the city’s first elected mayor four years later. After becoming the fastest airplane pilot in the world, he thus became mayor of the fastest growing city in the United States. He was elected to the California State Assembly in 1992 and to the California State Senate in 1996. Knight achieved widespread public notice as the author of Proposition 22, the purpose of which was to ban same-sex marriage. He continued to serve in the California State Senate, representing the 17th District, until his death on May 7, 2004.