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The legendary SR-71’s first pilot, Bob Gilliland, passes away

by Till Daisd
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SR 71 Gilliland

On December 22, 1964, Bob Gilliland performed the illustrious SR-71 maiden flight

Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland passed away on Thursday, July 4, 2019, at the Rancho Mirage, California retirement facility where he had been living for several years. He was a former Lockheed test pilot and the first person to fly the iconic SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, which was the fastest aircraft in the world. He was 93. Robert Gilliland Jr., the deceased man’s son, made the announcement.

Gilliland, a Memphis, Tennessee native, attended the United States Naval Academy and graduated in 1949. He then joined the newly formed Air Force and flew the F-84 fighter in post-World War II Germany and the Korean War. After the war, he was chosen for the prestigious Air Force Research and Development team, where he flew almost all of the USAF’s aircraft, including the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, which he used to “expand the envelope.” Bob trained some of the best pilots in the world to fly the Starfighter as a Lockheed F-104 instructor pilot.

Wing Commander Kenneth Lett of Canada, General John Dunning of the USAF, and Luftwaffe fighter aces Gunther Rall and Johannes Steinhoff were among his students. Interestingly, Bob has successfully completed 5 “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.

In 1961, Gilliland was hired by Skunk Works, where he worked under renowned aircraft designer Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson. He started testing an innovative aircraft that could reach speeds above Mach 3.2 and climb to 85,000 feet out of the ultra-secret Area 51 in the Nevada desert. The Central Intelligence Agency created the A-12, the first member of the Blackbird family, for use in its covert Oxcart program.

Gilliland was named Johnson’s primary test pilot as he started developing the SR-71, a similar but more sophisticated aircraft for the Air Force. On December 22, 1964, Gilliland made the historic first flight.

Inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2017, Gilliland was honored for his groundbreaking work in creating an aircraft that turned into a strong intelligence-gathering tool during the final 25 years of the Cold War.

Bob Gilliland is the only pilot in the world to have completed more test flights at Mach 3. 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 by Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland / Robert Gilliland, Jr.

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