Cold War Era

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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