Aviation legend Bob Gilliland passes

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Robert Gilliland (Courtesy photograph)

Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland, former Lockheed test pilot and the first man to fly the iconic SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, the world’s fastest aircraft, died on Thursday, Jul. 4, 2019 at the Rancho Mirage, Calif., retirement facility where he had been living for several years. He was 93.

Gilliland was born on May 1, 1926, in Memphis, Tenn. He was the eldest son of Frank and Elizabeth Gilliland. 

At the age of 17, in 1944, Bob graduated from The Webb School in Bell Buckle, Tenn. World War II was still raging in both Europe and the Pacific and Gilliland chose to join the Navy. He was training for submarine duty when he was accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy. He graduated in 1949 with a degree in engineering.

The newly independent Air Force needed pilots and some members of Gilliland’s class were offered the opportunity to switch from the Navy to the Air Force. The decision to accept a commission in the new branch would loom large in his life. Gilliland spent the next six months in flight training at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, and Williams Air Force Base, Ariz., earning his wings in 1950.  That summer Gilliland was assigned to the 86th Fighter Wing at Neubiberg Air Base, West Germany. Flying the F-84 Thunderjet, Bob was among the first generation of Air Force pilots to successfully make the transition from propeller-driven craft to jets.

That same summer the United States became involved in the Korean War. Gilliland volunteered to be reassigned to the front, flying with the 69th Fighter Squadron out of K2 in Taegu, Korea. He flew 20 combat missions in the Republic F-84. After the war, Gilliland returned to Germany but was soon assigned stateside with the Air Force Research and Development Group at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Here he had the opportunity to test and to fly just about every airplane in the Air Force’s arsenal.

Gilliland left active duty in 1954 when his father requested he return to Memphis. For the next few years Gilliland helped manage his father’s commercial property.  Even though he was no longer active duty, Gilliland couldn’t stop flying, so he joined the Tennessee National Guard, becoming proficient with the hottest jet fighter of the day, the F-104 Starfighter.

Robert Gilliland (seated), a retired test pilot for Lockheed Martin, holds up his “Bronze Skunk,” which was presented by LM employees, Steve Justice (right), Director for Advanced Systems Development, the Skunk Works’ Advanced Design Group, and Kent Burns (center), ADP program manager and former SR-71 reactivation chief engineer. Gilliland was at the helm of the first flight of an SR-71, which took place Dec. 22, 1964, from Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif. The first SR-71 to enter service was delivered to the 4200th (later, 9th) Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., in January 1966. (Air Force photograph by Rebecca Amber)

After his father died in 1959, Gilliland left for California to work for Lockheed Corporation in Burbank. During this time, he became the father of two children who would bring him great pride and joy through the years: Anne and Robert, Jr. 

At Lockheed Gilliland began as a test pilot and instructor for the F-104 Starfighter. Then, in 1962, Gilliland was invited to join Lockheed’s Advanced Development Program, a top-secret program known as the Skunk Works. Gilliland became their Chief Test Pilot and was the first to fly the SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest and highest altitude plane ever built. This long-range, Mach 3+ reconnaissance aircraft can operate at altitudes and speeds that allow it to outrace threats – like surface-to-air missiles. The Blackbird was designed to have basic stealth characteristics, making it a precursor to the F-117 Nighthawk and various other stealth aircraft.

Gilliland test flew every Blackbird that came off the production line before it was turned over to the Air Force. He played a vital role in developing the world’s most advanced aircraft to win the battle for secrets that was so important in winning the Cold War. Gilliland has logged over 6,500 flight hours and has more experimental supersonic flight test time above Mach 2 and Mach 3 than any other pilot.  He left Skunk Works in 1975.

Bob Gilliland, a Fellow in the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, has received numerous awards and recognitions, among them the Ivan C. Kincheloe Award for his work on the Blackbird program. He was named an Eagle by the Air Force Flight Test Historical Foundation and received the Godfrey L. Cabot Award.  He has also been inducted into the California Aviation Hall of Fame and the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame.