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Volume 46 | Issue 5 | June 2004


photo: William J. Pete Knight.
Then test pilot William J. "Pete" Knight poses by the X-15A-2 in 1965. He was called the "fastest man alive" for his X-15 flight that reached Mach 6.7. NASA Photo

Aerospace icon Knight laid to rest

By Sarah Merlin
X-Press Assistant Editor

An icon in the worlds of California aerospace and state politics faded peacefully from the Antelope Valley landscape in May when state Sen. William J. "Pete" Knight was laid to rest with all the pomp and dignity of full military honors.

The 74-year-old Knight, a former test and combat pilot and retired Air Force colonel, died May 7 at City of Hope hospital in Duarte after a brief battle with leukemia. A long-time fixture of the Dryden and Edwards aerospace communities, he also served as a local and state legislator in the years after his military career ended.

Eulogized as "a man for all seasons" at May 13 funeral services attended by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Knight earned the moniker of "fastest man alive" after he piloted a risky 1967 flight in the X-15A-2 to Mach 6.7 and 100,000 feet. He accumulated more than 7,000 flying hours in over 100 types of military and civilian aircraft during his aviation career, which involved stints at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and Edwards Air Force Base, where he attended test pilot school. He flew 253 combat missions over Southeast Asia in F-100 fighters during the Vietnam War, earning three Distinguished Flying Crosses. Out of the cockpit, he played an active role in development and production of new fighter aircraft before retiring from the Air Force in 1982.

"Pete Knight was clearly a great American hero," said Maj. Gen. Douglas Pearson, commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards, in remarks at the funeral service held at Lancaster Baptist Church.

"He was also my personal hero. It's because of Pete Knight that I stand in front of you today. He gave me the inspiration to reach for the stars," Pearson said, saluting Knight's casket as he concluded his eulogy.

More than 2,000 mourners turned out for the funeral, including state legislators, military brass and aviation world luminaries like astronaut Col. Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin (USAF Ret.) and Brig. Gen. Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager (USAF Ret.) - as well as hundreds of ordinary citizens, constituents and admirers. Burbank graphic artist and aviation enthusiast Phil Dockter typified the latter.

"We all knew about the X-15 program from early youth," reflected the 40-something Dockter, who had made special ribbon-festooned buttons commemorating Knight and was handing them out amongst the crowd. "There were heroes I carried over from my childhood, and Pete Knight was one of them. Plus, he was always just so nice to people - very generous and accommodating."

Driving from Burbank to attend the memorial services, Dockter said, was "a show of respect. I guess it sort of finalizes that 'hero' connection." Then, on a wistful note, "You just never know when will be the last time you're going to see these people."

At graveside services in Palmdale's Desert Lawn Memorial Park, Knight received full military honors - a 21-gun salute, a bugler playing taps and a T-38 flyover in the traditional "missing man" formation. The American flag that draped his casket had been flown in five aircraft associated with Edwards, a T-38, an F-15, an F-16, a C-17 and an F/A-22. Pearson presented the flag to Knight's widow Gail at the close of the graveside service.

Upon retiring from military service, Knight embarked on a political career that was to comprise the other half of his legacy. He was elected to the Palmdale City Council in 1984 and became the city's first popularly elected mayor in 1988, a post he held until being elected in 1992 to a four-year term in the California state Assembly. In 1996, he was elected to the state Senate, where he served as senator from the 17th District until the time of his death. His tenure was to end, due to term limits, in November.

During his service as senator, the staunchly conservative Knight was best known as author of the controversial Proposition 22, passed in 2002, which defined marriage in California as being between one man and woman. He also was a well-known advocate for veterans, working tirelessly to secure Lancaster as the site for a state veterans home.

Since his death, plans have been announced by Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich to rename Air Force Plant 42 in Knight's honor. A new high school in east Palmdale, part of the Antelope Valley Union High School District, was named for him prior to his death.

Knight was born Nov. 18, 1929, in Noblesville, Ind. He is survived by his widow, a brother, three sons, four stepchildren and 15 grandchildren. His first wife, Helena Stone, preceded him in death.

X-15 Photo Gallery, (/centers/dfrc/Gallery/Photo/X-15/index.html)

X-15 Movie Gallery, (/centers/dfrc/Gallery/Movie/X-15/index.html)