Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland has the distinct honor of being the first man to fly the SR-71 Blackbird aircraft, forever marking his place in history. He was a distinguished Air Force fighter pilot, fighter test pilot and Lockheed Skunk Works test pilot. Gilliland was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1926. He served as a sailor in the US Navy before being accepted to the US Naval Academy, where he graduated in 1949 with a degree in engineering. He was among the first class offered the opportunity to accept a commission in the US Air Force and the chance to undergo pilot training.
Gilliland successfully earned his wings at Randolph Field, Texas, followed by advanced training in the F-80 Shooting Star. Following training, he flew the P-47 Thunderbolt and F-84 Thunderjet in Germany. In 1952, he volunteered for a combat tour in Korea where he flew the F-84, and in 1953 returned to Germany to fly the F-86F Sabre Jet. His next assignment was to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, where he became an Air Force test pilot. While at Eglin, he flew nearly every aircraft then in the US Air Force inventory. He left active duty in 1954 and returned home to Memphis, Tennessee, where he joined the Tennessee Air National Guard.
There, he flew the P-51, B-26, RF-80, RF-84 and F-104A until 1960, at which time he joined Lockheed as a civilian test pilot flying all models of the F-104 Starfighter. During that time, he performed flight evaluations on some of the world’s leading pilots, such as the Luftwaffe’s Gunther Rall and USAF General John Dunning. Gilliland worked closely with the air forces of the Republic of China (Taiwan), Canada, Japan, Germany and Italy, both in the US and abroad. He also made the first flight of the Fiat-Aviazione F-104S produced in Italy under license from Lockheed. After being introduced to Kelly Johnson of Lockheed’s Skunk Works, he was invited to join the division as a test pilot. In 1962, he began testing the fastest and highest flying aircraft, including the A-11, A-12, YF-12A and ultimately the SR-71.
The first flight of the SR-71, tail number 61-7950, took place on 22 December 1964 with Gilliland at the controls, at which time he flew the aircraft to Mach 1.5 and 50,000 feet. Following the maiden flight, he continued as the principal test pilot of the SR-71 development program, personally flying each Blackbird as it became operational. Because of this, he logged more supersonic flight test time above Mach 2 and Mach 3 than any other pilot. Overall, Gilliland logged more than 6,500 flight hours in numerous aircraft. He is a fellow in the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, and was awarded the prestigious Ivan 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. Gilliland has a daughter and a son, and splits his time between Memphis and Burbank, California.