Tom and Mimi McKnight
Tom and Mimi McKnight, outside the new home for Texas ASE/EM, recently donated $1 million to establish a new student center.

Thomas McKnight, B.S. ASE 1970, and his wife, Mimi, donated $1 million to the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics (Texas ASE/EM) to transform the department’s facilities. The gift will establish a student-centered signature space in the new home, slated for move-in by late 2018, and marks the largest single donation the department has ever received. Learn more about the inspiration behind the new student center.

The Dream of Flight

Growing up in Houston, Thomas (Tom) McKnight had a love of flying for as long as he can remember. As a child he has fond memories of watching airplanes taking off and landing on the runway of what is now Houston Hobby Airport, and, in his early teens, riding his bike to watch the NASA Johnson Space Center rise up from what used to be the local Kroger’s grocery store.

“Back in those days kids rode in the back of the pickup truck. My uncle would drive my cousins and me out and park at the airport right in the vicinity of where the planes would be landing,” McKnight said. “As a kid, I was motivated watching the airplanes come in, touch down and land. Naturally, I just knew I had to be a part of it.”

Determined to make his dream of taking flight come true, McKnight worked odd jobs to cover the cost of flying lessons, earning his private pilot’s license in 1964. Soon after, he was on the Forty Acres pursuing a degree in aerospace engineering. While an undergraduate, McKnight started a flying service and placed an ad in The Daily Texan to give flying lessons in his Piper Cub plane. He received an overwhelming response, giving him invaluable experience in both flying and business.

Tom McKnight and airplane
Tom McKnight with a Schweizer126 glider, which he flew in a glider club competition in Marfa, Texas in 1967.

What Starts Here

Fresh out of college, McKnight was commissioned as a U.S. Air Force officer, earned his pilot wings and started flying the F106 Interceptor. His first squadron was in North Dakota where he met his wife, Mimi, and his next squadron was in New York where their two daughters, Stephenie and Marcy, were born. After serving seven years as an F106 pilot for the North American Air Defense command and one year as an aerospace engineer for the Air Force Systems Command, McKnight returned to Texas to apply his engineering skills to the oil industry.

McKnight’s work in petroleum engineering was fueled by two incentives: the first was patriotic problem-solving in finding energy for the nation; the second was to support his passion for flight.

“This was shortly after the Arab Oil Embargo and gas lines of the early 1970s and the Iranian Revolution and hostage taking. I believed then, as I still do, that the oil industry greatly contributes to the security of the United Sates,” McKnight said. “It was good to be able to have a career that was not only profitable, but that also benefited our country. It’s exciting to know that the U.S. is now on a course to become the world’s largest oil producer.”

Jumping from piloting to petroleum is no small task, but McKnight said his background in engineering is what launched him to success.

“The engineering skills along with the heavy mathematical and physics background that I obtained from my aerospace engineering degree at UT allowed me the ability to solve a lot of mathematical problems that benefited the oil industry,” he said. “The abilities you gain as a result of the aerospace engineering program enable you to do anything.”

In 1978, McKnight started working as a field engineer for Schlumberger and shortly after was promoted to district manager. By 1983, McKnight was an independent oil producer, co-founding Union Royalty Inc. While president of Union Royalty, McKnight became one of the first independent producers to implement a large scale CO2 enhanced recovery project to mobilize and extract oil that would otherwise be left behind.

But that wasn’t the last of McKnight’s contributions to the industry. In 2003, McKnight co-founded two more companies — Eagle Rock Drilling Inc. and Eagle Rock Manufacturing Inc. — where he designed and brought to life a series of hydraulic top drive drilling rigs that allow for more efficient drilling. The intellectual property was sold to LeTourneau Technologies Drilling Systems Inc. and is now owned by McKnight’s first industry employer, Schlumberger.

Looking back on his career, McKnight credits much of his success to the weight his degree added to his resume. “As an aerospace engineer from UT, you have credibility right from the beginning, and that can open a lot of doors,” he said.

Sharing the Dream

After joining hundreds of other alumni who donated to help make the Cockrell School’s new Engineering Education and Research Center (EERC) a reality, McKnight and his wife decided to give to the department.

The couple’s transformative $1 million gift will establish an impressive new student-centered signature space in Texas ASE/EM’s new facility where students and visitors will be greeted with a glass seating area and well-lit study space against a sleek space-themed backdrop. The new student center will include a collaborative learning area, a computing center, a student conference room and a quiet zone.

“We watched every step of construction in the EERC with excitement and pride and we had been exploring several giving options over the years,” Mimi McKnight said. “After we learned more about the aerospace engineering department's accomplishments, goals and needs, this seemed like the right donation at the right time to help.”

The McKnights hope their contribution and the new space it creates will inspire students for decades to come.

“I couldn’t have given this donation without my education or without the abilities I gained here at UT,” Tom McKnight said. “We wanted to help students now and in the future have the same great experiences and opportunities to follow their passions.”

The McKnights live in the Texas Hill Country, where flying and ranching are their two main pastimes.

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ASE/EM Academy of Distinguished Alumni

We are establishing the ASE/EM Academy of Distinguished Alumni to honor graduates of the aerospace and engineering mechanics programs who have led distinguished careers in industry, government or academia, and to recognize their outstanding accomplishments.

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