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GOP's Pete Knight, 74; Former Test Pilot Was Foe of Gay Marriage

May 09, 2004|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

William J. "Pete" Knight, a former Air Force test pilot who as a Republican state senator led the charge against gay marriage in California with a successful statewide initiative in 2000, has died. He was 74.

Knight, who has been absent from his seat since April 12 because of leukemia, died Friday night of an acute form of the cancer at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte.

At the time of his death, Knight was completing his final months as the GOP state senator from the Palmdale area. He was unable to run for another term because of term limits.

Knight was best known as the author of Proposition 22, the California ballot initiative defining marriage as strictly between a man and a woman. The initiative was approved by more than 60% of voters and presaged the state's current fight over the legality of gay marriage.

It also created a painful rift between Knight and his son, David Knight, who publicly announced that he is gay.

When San Francisco officials briefly issued marriage licenses to gay couples earlier this year, the elder Knight fought the city's efforts in court. Meanwhile, his estranged son traveled from his home in Baltimore to marry his partner in San Francisco's City Hall.

"I love my father dearly and I miss him," David Knight told The Times in March. "But if he's going to continue to attack something that affects me and affects my friends, and do something that I believe is wrong, I can't just not try to make my own statement."

Asked Saturday whether he had reconciled with his father before the senator's death, a clearly grieving David Knight said, "I really just have no input. I am not able to talk just now."

David Orosco, the senator's communications director who announced Knight's death, said Saturday that the father and son had spoken during the past three weeks and that he thought "David also saw his father."

To social conservatives, Pete Knight was a hero.

"He just has a very strong view of right and wrong, and it's all kind of wrapped up in being a true, patriotic American," George Runner, a former Republican assemblyman who is running for Knight's seat, said recently.

Knight was born Nov. 18, 1929, in Noblesville, Ind. As a slightly built young man, he worked as a racehorse jockey. The love of speed he developed at the track persuaded him to try his hand as a pilot, according to Andrew Pugno, lawyer for the Proposition 22 Legal Defense and Education Fund and a former Knight aide.

Knight joined the Air Force in 1951, completed pilot training, and in 1954 won the Allison Jet Trophy Race, a contest that pitted him against the Air Force's best pilots.

After receiving a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1958, Knight enrolled at the Air Force's Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, where Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager first broke the sound barrier in 1947.

Edwards has become almost as legendary for the escapades of larger-than-life pilots as for the aviation records they set. But the future senator was not one of the "cocky flyboy[s]," according to Knight's friend, Betty Smith.

"Pete was a little humble with everything he did ...[Pete] knew when he was getting out of the service that he wanted to go into government," she said.

Knight's most famous exploits came in the cockpit of the X-15, a narrow-winged aircraft that was designed to travel into the shallow reaches of space at more than five times the speed of sound. The plane proved to be a crucial laboratory for the American space program, showing that pilots could perform their jobs in low gravity and at hypersonic speeds.

Knight's flight of an experimental X-15 aircraft on Oct. 3, 1967, was the fastest manned airplane voyage in history -- at 4,520 mph, he took the plane to 6.7 times the speed of sound. The heat from the friction burned a hole in the tail of the plane and tore off a test engine.

Just four months earlier, on June 29, Knight nearly died in the X-15 when the plane was more than 20 miles up and the engine quit, apparently due to an electrical malfunction. Flying without the aid of instruments, Knight was able to guide the aircraft to a safe landing in Mud Lake, Nev. His only injury came when he bumped his head climbing out of the cockpit.

The feat earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross. His later speed record earned him astronaut's wings for flying into "near space" and a trip to Washington, D.C., where President Johnson praised Knight's "career of challenging the impossible."

When he retired in 1982 as a colonel, he had flown 253 combat missions in Southeast Asia and more than 6,000 hours in about 100 planes, cementing his status as a hero in the Antelope Valley, the aerospace-driven desert community in north Los Angeles County that he would later represent.

In 1984, Knight was elected to the City Council in Palmdale, a fast-growing suburb south of Edwards. He became its mayor four years later. In 1992, he was elected to the California Assembly.

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