This July, Lt. Jr. Grade Danielle McKnight received her Naval Aviator’s wings while stationed at the Naval Air Station in Milton, Florida. Pinning them on her is her grandfather, James Kent, a retired Marine captain. “Needless to say, it was one of proudest moments of my life,” he said. Photo courtesy James Kent
Ensign Danielle McKnight, U.S. Navy, stands by her plane immediately after her first solo flight at Naval Air Station, Corpus Christi, Texas. Photo courtesy James Kent

The Hemet High School graduating class of 2011 included 22 members from Idyllwild. In the few years since that bright, sunny and cool evening, most of these “Hillbillies” have left the Hill, if not permanently, at least temporarily.

As they have gradually broken from the chrysalis of teen-hood and become young adults, they have spread across the nation and beyond. Some have encountered troubles, some have discovered lives that weren’t foreseen, and some have achieved or are achieving their dreams.

One who has left the Hill, sailed the oceans and returned to Southern California, at least temporarily, is Danielle McKnight, Navy lieutenant junior grade.

McKnight is currently stationed in San Diego. She is a helicopter pilot and training to fly the Navy’s Sikorsky SH-60/MH-60 Seahawk. Even in high school, McKnight was interested in flying. She was a member of the Air Force Junior ROTC then.

“I was a freshman or sophomore in high school when I decided I wanted to go into the military. My grandfather [James Kent, formerly of Pine Cove] was the main influence,” she wrote in an email. The Naval Academy training convinced her to pursue her dream of becoming a pilot.

“The summer between my junior and senior year, I was able to do a training the academy provided where we got our first 10 flight hours in a fixed-wing aircraft culminating in a solo flight. By the end of that training I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she added.

After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2016, Ensign McKnight entered pre-flight training. “I chose pilot out of USNA because of how much I enjoyed flying.”

Her first assignment was the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. Next, she was assigned to the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas, where she became a pilot flying the T-6B.

After a year of training, she made her first solo flight last August 2017, in a T-6 Texan. From there, she was transferred to the Naval Station in Milton, Florida, to begin her helicopter pilot training. There she learned to fly the TH-57, the Navy’s trainer helicopter.

“I chose helicopters because of the diversity in their mission set and importance to the Navy’s operations,” she wrote.

“I know more than most people the danger involved in a MH-60R Navy helicopter. I worry about her all the time,” said her grandfather, who is a retired Marine captain. “I am also so very proud that she has chosen to serve her country as a Naval Officer and flyer. From the day she entered the Naval Academy she has been doing exactly what she wants to do — and she has had my support through every step of her career.”

With that experience, she was assigned to the San Diego Naval Air Station, where McKnight is a student at the fleet replacement squadron learning to fly the “big choppers.” The MH-60R Seahawk is a twin turboshaft engine, multi-mission machine. By next summer, she expects “… . to be transferred to Japan next summer.”

“The naval forces out there are always considered ‘forward deployed’ so I don’t really have a specific area where I will deploy,” she said about her future. “There are two MH-60R squadrons; one is assigned to an aircraft carrier and the other sends detachments to smaller ships like destroyers.”

Graduating from the Naval Academy, becoming a pilot of planes and helicopters, McKnight is experiencing a dream. She has no regrets and looks forward to her military career as much as she enjoyed her schooling.

“The Naval Academy was tough, but well worth the work. If I had to do it again, I would. I played ice hockey while I was at the academy and my time with that team was an ongoing highlight,” she said proudly.