Home Aviation History Bob Gilliland, the First Man to fly the iconic SR-71, Passes Away

Bob Gilliland, the First Man to fly the iconic SR-71, Passes Away

by Dario Leone
Bob Gilliland, the First Man to fly the iconic SR-71, Passes Away

Bob Gilliland made the historic SR-71 first flight on Dec. 22, 1964.

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, California retirement facility where he had been living for several years. He was 93. The death was announced by his son, Robert Gilliland, Jr.

A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Gilliland graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1949 and immediately joined the newly independent Air Force, serving as an F-84 fighter pilot in post-war Germany and during the Korean War. He was then selected after the war for the elite Air Force Research and Development team where he flew virtually every aircraft in the USAF inventory including “expanding the envelope” in the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. As a Lockheed F-104 instructor pilot, Bob taught some of the world’s leading pilots how to fly the Starfighter.

This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

Some of his students included WW2 Luftwaffe fighter aces Gunther Rall, and Johannes Steinhoff as well as Canada’s Wing Commander Kenneth Lett and USAF General John Dunning. Remarkably, Bob has made 5 successful “dead stick” landings in the F-104 – an amazing accomplishment given that the F-104 glides like a “toolbox” and is extremely unforgiving of pilot errors. Bob was also involved with fellow Lockheed test pilot Darryl Greenamyer in breaking the FAI world restricted altitude speed record of 988.26 mph in a highly modified F-104 on October 24, 1978.

Bob Gilliland, the First Man to fly the iconic SR-71, Passes Away
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. SR-71A Blackbird 61-7972 “Skunkworks”

Gilliland was recruited to the Skunk Works in 1961, where he became a protégé of legendary aircraft designer Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson. Working out of super-secret Area 51 in the Nevada desert, he began testing a revolutionary airplane capable of attaining speeds in excess of Mach 3.2 and climbing to 85,000 feet. This became the first plane in the Blackbird family, the A-12, designed for use by the Central Intelligence Agency under its covert Oxcart program.

When Johnson began designing the similar but more advanced SR-71 for the Air Force, he appointed Gilliland chief test pilot. Gilliland made the historic first flight on Dec. 22, 1964.

Recognized for his pioneering work in developing an aircraft that emerged as a potent intelligence-gathering weapon during the last quarter-century of the Cold War, Gilliland was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2017.

Bob Gilliland has logged more test flight hours at Mach 3 than any other pilot in the world. He has been recognized and honored for his work many times.

Bob Gilliland, the First Man to fly the iconic SR-71, Passes Away
Gilliland peers from the cockpit of an SR-71 after a test flight in the Blackbird. (Courtesy Robert J. Gilliand)

Photo credit: Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland / Robert Gilliland, Jr.

You may also like

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

The Aviation Geek Club
Welcome to The Aviation Geek Club, your new stopover aviation place. Launched in 2016 by Dario Leone, an Italian lifelong - aviation geek, this blog is the right place where you can share your passion and meet other aviation enthusiasts from all over the world.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Privacy & Cookies Policy
error: Content is protected!