When Kelly Johnson began designing the advanced SR-71 Blackbird for the US Air Force, he appointed Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland chief test pilot.
On the morning of Dec. 22, 1964, at a small, closely guarded airstrip in the desert town of Palmdale, California, Lockheed test pilot Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland stepped into a strange-looking aircraft and roared into aviation history.
Developed at the super-secret Skunk Works, the SR-71 Blackbird was a technological marvel. In fact, more than a half century later, the Mach 3-plus titanium wonder, designed by Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, remains the world’s fastest jet.
It took a test pilot with the right combination of intelligence, skill, and nerve to make the first flight of the SR-71, and the thirty-eight-year-old Gilliland had spent much of his life pushing the edge.
Gilliland was recruited to Lockheed’s 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 US Air Force (USAF), he appointed Gilliland chief test pilot.
Gilliland’s son Robert grew up hearing tales about daring men who ventured off on dangerous missions.
As told by Bob Gilliland and Keith Dunnavant in the book Speed, especially in later years, especially after the veil of secrets on the SR-71 Blackbird was lifted, the son began to ask questions about the Skunk Works days. One time, he wanted to know, “Did you ever fly the Blackbird upside down?”
Bob looked at this boy and smiled.
“Yes I did,” he said. As Robert’s eyes brightened, his father launched into a detailed description of a time when he went up with Dick Miller [Program Manager and Chief Engineer on the SR-71 program] in the back seat and rolled the SR-71 on its belly for a few precarious moments.
“But weren’t you concerned about Kelly finding out?”
“Oh, I turned off the instrumentation,” the old pilot said with a hearty laugh.
In such instances, the son saw brief flashes of the rebel who never much cared for rules and liked to push the edge but was too wise to allow himself to become reckless.
Bob Gilliland Passed Away on Jul. 4, 2019.
Speed is published by Casemate Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland / Robert Gilliland, Jr.