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55 Years Ago Today, Pete Knight Set the World Speed Record for a Winged Aircraft – The Record Still Stands

Posted by Guy Pirro   10/03/2022 02:25PM

55 Years Ago Today, Pete Knight Set the World Speed Record for a Winged Aircraft – The Record Still Stands

Yes folks -- That really is a white colored X-15 (X-15A-2) with external fuel tanks.  On October 3, 1967, Pete Knight piloted this specially modified X-15 to the program's fastest flight. Flying at a maximum speed of Mach 6.7 or 4520 mph (7274 km/h), he set the speed record for flight in a winged, powered aircraft – A record that still stands today. The flight was made in the X-15A-2, which received a full-scale ablative coating to protect the craft from the high temperatures associated with hypersonic flight (above Mach 5). This pink eraser-like substance was applied to the X-15A-2 aircraft and then covered with a white sealant coat before the flight, giving it the distinctive color. This coating was needed to help the aircraft reach its record speed. (Image Credit: NASA)


55 Years Ago Today, Pete Knight Set the World Speed Record for a Winged Aircraft – The Record Still Stands

55 years ago today, on October 3, 1967, William John “Pete” Knight set a world aircraft speed record for a manned aircraft by piloting his X-15A-2 to Mach 6.7 or 4520 miles per hour (7274 km/h) --  a record that still stands today. During his 16 flights in the X-15, Knight also became one of only eight test pilots to earn Astronaut Wings by flying an airplane to space, reaching an altitude of 280,500 feet (85,500 m). After nearly ten years of test flying at Edwards Air Force Base in California, Knight went to Southeast Asia in 1968 where he completed a total of 253 combat missions in an F-100 Super Saber during the Vietnam War. After 32 years of service and more than 6000 hours in the cockpits of more than 100 different aircraft, he retired from the US Air Force as a Colonel in 1982. Pete Knight was a test pilot, aeronautical engineer, Vietnam War combat pilot, astronaut, and even for a short time, a politician. Knight passed away in 2004 at age 74, truly an American hero… As were the rest of the brave test pilots who participated in the X-15 program.


Pete Knight joined the United States Air Force in 1951. Starting in 1958, following his graduation from the US Air Force Institute of Technology and the Air Force Experimental Flight Test Pilot School, Knight served as a test pilot at Edwards AFB. He was a project test pilot for the F-100 Super Sabre, F-101 Voodoo, F-104 Starfighter, and later, the T-38 Talon and F-5 Freedom Fighter 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 through the Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards AFB and was selected to fly the North American X-15.


Knight 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. For his remarkable feat of airmanship that day, he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross.


Two weeks after setting the world speed record, Knight flew his X-15 to an altitude above 50 miles. This qualified him as an astronaut according to the United States definition of the boundary of space. However, this altitude did not surpass the Karman line, the internationally accepted boundary of 100 kilometers (62 miles).



According to an article written by J. Terry White of White Eagle Aerospace (see reference below), Pete Knight’s record-setting X-15 aircraft “was configured with a pair of droppable propellant tanks that allowed the… rocket engine to operate 60 seconds beyond the stock X-15’s 80-second burn time…With the addition of the external propellant tanks, the X-15A-2 was really a three-stage vehicle.  The first stage was the NASA NB-52B mothership which launched the X-15 at Mach 0.82 and 45,000 feet.  The second stage consisted of the propellant-laden external tanks which were jettisoned at Mach 2.0 and 70,000 feet. The third stage was the X-15A-2 with its entire internal propellant load. Due to the increased speed of the X-15A-2, the aircraft was covered with… ablator to protect it from the higher aerodynamic heating loads. The baseline ablator was pink in color and gave the X-15A-2 a rather odd appearance.  Fortunately, application of a white wear/sealer over the ablator gave the aircraft a more dignified look.”


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