William J. Knight

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For other people named William Knight, see William Knight (disambiguation).
William J. "Pete" Knight
Pete Knight.jpg
USAF Astronaut
Nationality American
Born (1929-11-18)November 18, 1929
Noblesville, Indiana
Died May 7, 2004(2004-05-07) (aged 74)
Los Angeles, California
Other occupation
Test Pilot
Rank Colonel, USAF
Selection 1960 Dyna-Soar Group
Missions X-15 Flight 190
Mission insignia
X-15 insignia.png

William J. "Pete" Knight (November 18, 1929 – May 7, 2004) was a U.S. politician, combat pilot, test pilot, and astronaut. Knight holds the world's speed record for flight in a winged, powered aircraft. As a politician, he is noted as the author of California Proposition 22, which forbade the state from performing or recognizing same-sex marriage.

Air Force career[edit]

Knight joined the United States Air Force in 1951. While only a Second Lieutenant, he flew an F-89 at the National Air Show in 1954 and won the Allison Jet Trophy.

Starting in 1958, Knight served as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base. He was a project test pilot for the F-100, F-101 Voodoo, F-104 Starfighter and later, T-38 and F-5 test programs. In 1960, he was one of six 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. After the X-20 program was canceled in 1963, he completed the astronaut training curriculum 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 (33,000 m) at Mach 4.17 on June 29, 1967, he suffered a total electrical failure and all onboard systems shut down. After reaching a maximum altitude of 173,000 feet (53,000 m), 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, Nevada.[1] For his remarkable feat of airmanship that day, he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross.

Maj. William "Pete" Knight with the X-15. (USAF Photo)

On October 3, 1967, Knight set a world aircraft speed record for manned aircraft by piloting the X-15A-2 to 4,520 miles per hour (7,274 km/h) (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 (85,500 m).

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 sorties 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, Ohio. 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, he retired from the U.S. Air Force as a Colonel in 1982.

In honor of his achievements, Knight was inducted into the Aerospace Walk of Honor with the inaugural class of 1990.

Political career[edit]

In 1984, he was elected to the city council of Palmdale, California, and four years later became the city's first elected mayor. During his time as mayor of Palmdale, it was the fastest growing city in the United States.[citation needed] 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 May 7, 2004. Knight's youngest son, Steve Knight served as Assemblyman for the 36th Assembly District from 2008 to 2012, the seat previously held by his father.

Proposition 22[edit]

During his term in the Senate, Knight gained statewide attention in 2000 as the author of Proposition 22, a.k.a. 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. On March 9, 2004, Knight's son, David Knight, who is gay, married his partner during the period when San Francisco performed same-sex marriages in defiance of state law. These marriages were later nullified by the California Supreme Court in 2004. The Court later found Proposition 22 to be unconstitutional in In re Marriage Cases (2008).[2]


School in his name[edit]

In the city of Palmdale, Pete Knight High School was opened in his memory.[citation needed] The school began its first year in the school year of 2003-2004 and celebrated its first graduating class in 2007.


  1. ^ Mud Lake, Nye County, Nevada, 37°52′10″N 117°04′17″W / 37.86944°N 117.07139°W / 37.86944; -117.07139. Located at the northern edge of the Tonopah Test Range, this is the southernmost Mud Lake of several dry lakes bearing the same name in Nevada.
  2. ^ Garofoli, Joe; Wildermuth, John; Bulwa, Demian (August 5, 2010). "Mormons urged to back ban on same-sex marriage". The San Francisco Chronicle. 
Political offices
Preceded by
Cathie Wright
California State Assemblyman
36th District
December 7, 1992 – November 30, 1996
Succeeded by
George Runner
Preceded by
Don Rogers
California State Senator
17th District
December 2, 1996 – May 7, 2004