Eagle Profile

Fighter pilot, test pilot, astronaut, and politician, William J. “Pete” Knight is holder of the world’s speed record for winged powered flight. Born in Nobelsville, Indiana, in 1929, he earned his commission and pilot wings through the Aviation Cadet Program in 1953. As a second lieutenant, Knight won the Allison Trophy for his racing performance while flying the F-89 Scorpion in the Dayton National Air Show of 1954. In 1956, he attended the Air Force Institute of Technology and graduated 2 years later with a degree in aeronautical engineering.

He continued his schooling by next attending the Air Force Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB, California. Remaining at Edwards AFB, Knight was involved in several flight test programs including advanced testing of the F-100 Super Sabre. In 1960, he was one of five Air Force test pilots selected for the X-20 Dyna Soar program–the technologies test project which led to the Space Shuttle development. After cancellation of the X-20, Knight moved to the ongoing X-15 test program. In October 1967, he piloted the X-15A-2 to the speed of Mach 6.7. During this flight, the aircraft surface temperature exceeded 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, resulting in serious structural problems. Despite these problems, he successfully maneuvered the X-15 to a flawless landing.

Knight next saw combat in Southeast Asia flying F-100s at Phan Rang AB where he flew 253 combat missions. After his Vietnam tour, he was assigned to Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, where he served as the Test Director for developmental test and evaluation of the F-15 Eagle. Following graduation from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in 1973, Knight returned to Wright-Patterson AFB as the F-4 System Program Office (SPO) Director. As a result of reorganization within the Aeronautical Systems Division, he became Director of the Fighter Attack SPO responsible for the development and production of several Air Force fighter aircraft. In 1979, he returned to Edwards AFB as the Air Force Flight Center Commander where he served until retirement in 1982.

After 32 years of service and more than 6,000 hours in the cockpits of more than 100 different aircraft, he retired from the USAF in 1982. In 1984, he was elected to the city council of Palmdale, California, and, four years later became the city’s first elected mayor. In 1992, he was elected to serve in the California State Assembly representing the 36th District and, since 1996, he has continued to serve as a state senator representing California’s 17th Senate District.

Among his many honors, Colonel Knight has been awarded the Legion of Merit with one Oak Leaf Cluster, the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Air Medal with ten Oak Leaf Clusters, the Harmon International Trophy, the Octave Chanute Award, and the Air Force Association Citation of Honor. He has been inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame (1988), the Aerospace Walk of Honor (1990), and the International Space Hall of Fame (1998).

Years Honored: ,


1982 Lithograph
1989 Lithograph

Lithograph Setting(s):

On 3 October 1967, a B-52A Stratofortress carried the X-15A-2 piloted by Maj "Pete" Knight to an altitude of 43,000 feet and released it. The painting shows Maj Knight accelerating the aircraft to the world's speed record of Mach 6.72 or 4,534 miles per hour.

On 3 October 1967, "Pete" Knight climbed into the cockpit of the X-15A-2 for another flight in a series designed to push the aircraft to Mach 8. In the grand Edwards AFB test tradition, this would be a flight to " push the edge of the envelope" one more time. High over the Mojave Desert, his aircraft dropped away from the launch B-52 and he ignited the engine to begin his climb. As the outboard propellants burned out, he jettisoned the two large external tanks and rocketed forward through the thin atmosphere leveling off in full power at just over 100,000 feet. Boosted by over 140 seconds of engine-burn time, the rocket plane shot to Mach 6.7 (4,250 miles per hour)--the fastest winged powered flight ever in a manned vehicle.