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Liz Knemeyer Ruth Flew NASA’s SOPHIA Boeing 747SP

News Review Correspondent

In her senior year at Burroughs, Liz Knemeyer was the Associated Student Body (ASB) president and a princess on the 1977 Prom Court (Sister Kathy was, likewise, a Prom Princess in 1969 and voted “Best All Around”). Liz was a member of the California Scholastic Federation and a National Merit Scholar. Liz received the prestigious Bank of America Award for English. She was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by the Burroughs Class of 1977. (1977 El Burro) “Liz had aspired to be a flying doctor like her pediatrician (Dr. William McBride). While at Burroughs she learned that the US Air Force had started a trial program to permit female pilots and eventually allow them to achieve flight status with military aircraft.” (Alyssa Lee, Armstrong Flight Research Center, Edwards Air Force Base).

Liz Knemeyer
Liz Knemeyer | Courtesy Photo

Liz attended the University of Southern California (USC) majoring in Business and Organizational Behavior. Attending USC on a Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship, Liz rose to rank of Corps Cadet Commander. In 1981, Liz was recognized by Glamour Magazine as one of the Top Ten College Women, appearing on the Today Show. “I want to experience as many facets of life as possible and motherhood is one of those facets,” wrote University of Southern California, Los Angeles, pilot and business administration graduate. She was the highest-ranking officer in Air Force ROTC and intends to aim for the space program after getting a masters in computer science.” (Glamour Magazine).

In 1981, Liz attended the US Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training Program flying T-38 and T-43 jets and was certified as an Army Airborne paratrooper. During her Air Force service, Liz earned her Master of Aeronautical Science degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University at McClellan Air Force Base, specializing in Aviation and Airway Management and Operations. Liz earned the rank of Captain before concluding her Air Force career. (Linkedin).

After leaving Air Force active duty, Liz began a sixteen-year career with United Airlines as a pilot, instructor and program developer. Liz flew the Boeing “heavies” 747, 757, 767 and 777 aircraft on continental and international routes. She retired in July of 2005 to raise her three daughters. Time well spent. (Linkedin).

“They (NASA) were looking for a pilot with military experience and someone who had experience flying heavy aircraft, so I applied. When I found out I was flying the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFHIA), I thought there is nothing better than flying a big airplane at night and getting to look at the stars. My favorite part of flying SOFIA is being around scientists. It is so inspiring being around people who are so passionate about what they do. There are no better people to work with than the people of NASA.” (Alyssa Lee) SOPHIA is operated on a Boeing 747SP, coined “Vampire Jet” as it only flies at night to protect the telescope. It can fly faster, higher and farther than any commercial airliner. Liz was the only female SOPHIA pilot. (NASA) Liz also flies a Gulfstream III for NASA and JPL conducting radar ground mapping. On June 9, 2022, Liz was honored by NASA with the coveted “Exceptional Public Service Medal.” (Liz).

Liz is the daughter of Frank and Cecilia (Tina) Knemeyer, China Lake pioneers and legendary China Lake couple. Frank and Tina felt there was no better place to work and raise a family than China Lake, “being around people who are so passionate about what they do.”

“Frank Knemeyer came to China Lake armed with a master’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Caltech, an unimpeachable work ethic and a leadership quality that saw him rise rapidly through the ranks at China Lake. In 1961 he was awarded the LTE Thompson Award-the highest honor at China Lake, ‘for his significant technical contributions, leadership and guidance on weapon- system development as Head of the Weapons Department, Weapons Planning Group and Systems Acquisition Group. Frank was a strong and effective proponent of the China Lake’s “Smart Buyer” role.” (Liz Babcock and Cliff Lawson)

“Mom, Cecilia (Tina) was deeply involved in the community since the early China Lake days. She was an enthusiastic supporter of the arts and music and an active member of WACOM, AAUW, Girl Scouts, CLOTA, Maturango Museum and the Catholic Church.” (Liz) And she and Frank raised six children:

  • Army Lt. Colonel Kathy Knemeyer Gasperini (BHS 1969) attended college on an Army ROTC scholarship and served as an Army RN her entire career. Margaret Knemeyer (BHS 1972) earned a Master’s Degree at George Washington University and is the Chief Financial Officer at the National Academy of Sciences.
  • Her only brother, John (BHS 1975), earned BS in Biochemistry in 1979 from Cal Poly, SLO. John retired from the Mt. Diablo Power Plant as Nuclear Chemistry Engineer Supervisor.
  • Carol Knemeyer Setina (BHS 1979) was a long- time IWV swimmer and four-season BHS varsity swimmer. Her career was as a cardiac and pulmonary care RN. Carol is a sport skydiving instructor with over 2,000 jumps.
  • Mary Knemeyer Tussey (BHS 1981) was salutatorian of her Burroughs graduating class. Mary taught math at the college level and now owns a Yamaha dealership.

This profile was suggested by Joann Roby (BHS 1978) Ricky Wright (BHS 1976) graduated from the US Air Force Academy and flew F4H Phantoms and F-117 Nighthawks, later flying US routes for JetBlue. To my current knowledge, Ricky and Liz are the only Burros that flew “heavies” on long routes.