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James "Jack" H. Knight

James H. Knight

1892-1945

James H. "Jack" Knight was born in Lincoln Center, Kansas on March 14, 1892. Following his mother's death in 1893, he moved to Buchanan, Michigan where he grew up and completed high school. In 1911 he decided to pursue a flying career and acquired the nickname Jack.

In 1917 Jack enlisted in the war against Germany. After eight weeks of ground training he was sent to Ellington Field, Texas where he learned to fly and became an instructor pilot. At the close of the war, Jack returned to his former position as a mechanical engineer in Chicago.

In 1919 he won wide acclaim when he flew a special newly developed botulism serum from Urbana, Illinois to New York City to save six persons poisoned by ripe olives. The same year, he became a pilot for the U.S. Mail Service flying mail between New York and Chicago and later between Omaha and Cheyenne.

He collaborated on establishing the first practical demonstration of two-way ground-air radio communication and also pioneered in establishing air beacon systems for night flying.

The Post Office Department had initiated around-the-clock relay airmail service between New York and San Francisco with two planes flying east and two flying west. Airplanes then had no radio navigation aids so people on the ground would light bonfires to guide the pilots. The planes would land every 200-300 miles to refuel and change pilots.

Flying a de Havilland D.H. 4, Knight made his regular run from Omaha to Cheyenne and then back to meet the next pilot. However, the airplane for the Omaha to Chicago leg was "socked in" by weather in Chicago.

Convinced that the future of airmail service was riding on his flight, he took off for Chicago where he landed at 8:40 in the morning. His flight captured public imagination and Congress agreed to continue funding airmail service.
Knight later flew for United Airlines, retiring in 1937. In total, he flew more than 2,400,000 air miles. He passed away at the age of 53 in 1945.

James H. "Jack" Knight was enshrined in the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame on September 25, 1999 for his fearless flying skills under adverse weather conditions and his part in pioneering the safe and effective all weather aviation routes of today.

Smithsonian Institution Affiliations Program