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Article: William J. Knight - The World's Fastest Pilot

William J. Knight

William J. Knight - The World's Fastest Pilot

William (Pete) Knight was born on November 18, 1929, in Noblesville, Indiana, and went on to live an extraordinary life ranging from racehorse jockey to a member of the California Senate from 1996 to 2004.

After graduating from high school Knight's first job was as a racehorse jockey before enlisting in the USAF in 1951 at the age of 22. Apparently, he loved speed, as his future career would show!

Two years later, he had completed the USAF aviation cadet program and his pilot training by 1953. A year later, he won the prestigious Allison Jet Trophy Race flying a Northrop F-89 Scorpion all-weather interceptor aircraft. 

Knight Becomes A Test Pilot

"Pete" Knight then continued his education obtaining an Aeronautical Engineering degree at the USAF Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Ohio.

Following graduation Knight was assigned to the USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California where he was involved in a number of projects as a test pilot.

In 1960 Knight was chosen to fly the Boeing X-20 DynaSoar space plane, but the project was canceled in 1962 just after construction of the spacecraft had begun.

By this time Knight had completed his astronaut training, and now he moved on to the experimental X-15 rocket plane.

The North American X-15 Rocket Plane superfast experimental aircraft

The X-15 was a very unique aircraft; it was 50 feet long, and had a wingspan of 22 feet. 

The aircraft was launched from a B-52 aircraft flying at 45,000 feet with a speed of 500 miles per hour. This was because of the limited fuel for the X-15, and not only that the 57,000 pounds of thrust only lasted 80-120 seconds!

The rest of the flight was powerless, but the aircraft would continue to climb for 10-11 minutes before gliding down for a landing at 200 miles per hour.

There were actually two flight missions:

  1. A high-altitude flight plan which called for the pilot to maintain a steep rate of climb;
  2. A speed profile flight plan the required the pilot to push over and maintain a level flight attitude.

For flight in the dense air of the usable atmosphere, the X-15 used conventional aerodynamic controls such as rudders on the vertical stabilizers to control yaw and movable horizontal stabilizers to control pitch when moving in synchronization or roll when moved differentially.

The X-15 was flown over a period of 10 years between June 1959 through October 1968.

But, his time flying the X-15 was not without danger. 

On one flight, while flying through 107,000 feet, he lost all electrical power while the aircraft continued to climb to 173,000 feet! Obviously, you can't bail out at the altitude, so Pete Knight just calmly glided the X-15 down for an emergency landing on Mud Lake, Nevada.

For this show of airmanship, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

But, the best was yet to come!

World Crewed Aircraft Speed Record 

Exactly 55 years ago, on October 3, 1967, William J. Knight set a world speed record when he flew a North American X-15 rocket-powered aircraft to Mach 6.7 (4,520 miles per hour)!

In order to accomplish this, X-15A #2 received a full-scale ablative coating to protect the aircraft and pilot from the high temperatures associated with high-Mach-number supersonic flight.

X-15A #2 aircraft with Full-Scale Ablatice Coating flown to Mach 6.7 (4,520 miles per hour) by William "Pete" Knight on October 3rd, 1967 for the world crewed aircraf t speed record.

After 32 years in the US Air Force, Colonel William J. "Pete" Knight retired from the USAF in 1982.

Knight Becomes A Politician

Like all driven men, Knight did not want to just sit back and do nothing, so he became involved in politics.

He served as the mayor of Palmdale, CA, later he was elected to the California State Assembly, and served as an assemblyman until his death on May 7th, 2004.

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In the meantime, keep your eyes safe and focused on what's ahead of you Hersch!

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