Robert J. Gilliland 1926-
Robert J. Gilliland, the first man to fly the SR-71 Blackbird, has logged more experimental supersonic flight test time above Mach 2 and Mach 3 than any other pilot.
A sailor in World War II and a 1949 Naval Academy graduate, Gilliland joined the newly formed United States Air Force. After flying P-47 Thunderbolts and F-84 Thunderjets in Germany, he flew F-84s during a combat tour in Korea in 1952. His first test flight was measuring the wing loads of the Thunderjet. When he finished, he analyzed the flight saying, "The wing didn't come off, so I felt pretty good."
As a fighter test pilot in 1953 at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, he flew most of the aircraft in the Air Force inventory. Later, he joined Lockheed as a civilian test pilot flying the F-104 Starfighter.
In 1962, Gilliland began to test the fastest and highest flying airplanes, including the A-11/A-12, YF-12A and the SR-71. He made the first flight of the SR-71 on December 22, 1964, taking the aircraft to Mach 1.5 and 50,000 feet altitude. He served as the principal test pilot for the SR-71's development program.
He logged over 6,500 hours in many different aircraft, including the F-104, F-80, F-84, F-86, T-6, P-47, YF-12A and SR-71.
A Fellow in the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, Gilliland was awarded the Iven C. Kincheloe Award in 1964 for his work on the Blackbird program. He was named an Eagle by the Air Force Flight Test Historical Foundation in 1998 and received the Godfrey L. Cabot Award in 2001. He is a trustee of the Association of Naval Aviation.
Bob Gilliland was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1926 and splits his time between Tennessee and Burbank, California. He has a son and a daughter.
He speaks fondly of the lifelong flying friendships he formed at Edwards Air Force Base and promises the test pilot of the future that there will always be opportunities on the cutting edge of flight test in spite of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The United States will always have a need for pilots who are challenged by the inherent danger of the work. Does the danger bother him? "The work is exciting. You may get killed. So what!" he responded.