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First Name: William

Last Name: Knight

Birthplace: Noblesville, IN, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Air Force (1947 - present)

Middle Name: J.

Date of Birth: 18 November 1929

Date of Death: 07 May 2004

Rank: Colonel

Years Served:
William J. Knight

•  Vietnam War (1960 - 1973)


William J. "Pete" Knight
Colonel, U.S. Air Force

William J. Knight was born on 18 November 1929 in Noblesville, IN.

Knight attended Butler and Purdue Universities and entered the U.S. Air Force in 1951. In 1952 he entered the Air Force Aviation Cadet Program and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1953. While he was only a Second Lieutenant, he flew an F-89 "Scorpion" at the National Air Show in 1954 and won the Allison Jet Trophy.

He graduated from the Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in 1958 and began serving as a test pilot. He was a project test pilot for the F-100, F-101 Voodoo, F-104 Starfighter and later, the T-38 and F-5 test programs. In 1960, he was one of four test pilots selected to fly the X-20 Dyna-Soar, which was slated to become the first winged orbital space vehicle capable of lifting reentries and conventional landings (a forerunner of the Space Shuttle). After the X-20 program was canceled in 1963, in 1964 he completed the Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards AFB and was selected to fly the North American X-15.

He had more than his share of eventful flights in the X-15. While climbing through 107,000 feet at Mach 4.17 on 29 June 1967, he suffered a total electrical failure and all onboard systems shut down. After arching over at 173,000 feet, he calmly set up a visual approach and, resorting to old-fashioned "seat-of-the-pants" flying, he glided down to a safe emergency landing at Mud Lake, NV. For his remarkable feat of airmanship that day, he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross.

On 3 October 1967, a B-52A Stratofortress carried the X-15A-2 piloted by Major Knight to an altitude of 43,000 feet and released it. Knight set a world aircraft speed record for manned aircraft by accelerating it to 4,520 mph (Mach 6.72), a record that still stands today. During 16 flights in the aircraft, Knight also became one of only five pilots to earn their Astronaut Wings by flying an airplane in space, reaching an altitude of 280,500 feet.

After nearly ten years of test flying at Edwards AFB, he went to Southeast Asia in 1968 where he completed a total of 253 combat missions in the F-100. Following his combat tour, he served as Test Director during development of the F-15 Eagle at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, OH. He also was the Program Director for the International Fighter (F-5) Program at Wright-Patterson. In 1979, he returned to Edwards AFB, and served as a test pilot for the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

After 32 years of service and more than 6,000 hours in the cockpits of more than 100 different aircraft, Knight retired from the USAF as a Colonel in 1982.


Knight was inducted into the Aerospace Walk of Honor in Lancaster, CA, with the inaugural class of 1990.

The Scaled Composites White Knight spacecraft launch plane was named after Knight and fellow X-15 pilot Robert White.

In the city of Palmdale, CA, Pete Knight High School was opened in his memory. The school's first school year was 2003-2004 and it celebrated its first graduating class in 2007.

In Retirement

Political Career

In 1984, Knight he was elected to the City Council of Palmdale, CA, and four years later became the City's first elected mayor. Along with becoming the fastest man in the world when he flew the X-15, he was also the Mayor of Palmdale when it was the fastest growing city in both California and the United States. In 1992, he was elected to serve in the California State Assembly representing the 36th District. He served in the State Senate representing the 17th District from 1996 until his death on 7 May 2004. Knight's youngest son, Steve Knight is currently the Assemblyman for the 36th Assembly District, the seat previously held by his father.

Proposition 22

During his term in the Senate, Knight gained statewide attention in 2000 as the author of Proposition 22, aka the "Knight Initiative," the purpose of which was to ban same-sex marriage: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." The proposition passed with 61.4% approval and 38.6% against. In 2004, Knight's middle son, David Knight, who is gay, married his partner when San Francisco performed same-sex marriages in defiance of state law. These marriages were later nullified by the California Supreme Court in August 2004. (David and his father were allegedly estranged from one another up until Pete's death in 2004.) As a statute, Proposition 22 was eventually ruled unconstitutional in 2008. A state constitutional amendment commonly known as Proposition 8, again banned same sex marriage when it was passed later that year. A federal district court later overturned Proposition 8 on 4 August 2010 deeming it unconstitutional. Same sex marriage remains illegal pending an appeal to the federal ruling.

Death and Burial

Colonel William J. "Pete" Knight died on 7 May 2004 in Duarte, CA. He is buried at Desert Lawn Memorial Park in Palmdale, CA.

Honoree ID: 2717   Created by: MHOH




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