Clarence 'Kelly' Johnson's Skunk Works Chief Test Pilot – Bob Gilliland
November 10, 2018
Robert J. 'Bob' Gilliland has logged more experimental supersonic test flights above Mach 2 and Mach 3 than any other pilot. He was the SR-71 project test pilot for and personal friends with Kelly Johnson, at the Lockheed Skunk Works.
Bob made the first flight of the SR-71 Blackbird on December 22, 1964 from Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif. The flight lasted one hour, at a speed of over 1,000 mph.
Bob was present at all of the SpaceShipOne launches in 2004, and told me, at the Rutan Brothers Birthday Bash held at Mojave Airport in 2008, "I flew all 3 variants of the Blackbird – the A-12, YF-12A and the SR-71 as they rolled off the Lockheed assembly line."
Bob Hoover, Bob Gilliland and my husband, Al Hansen visited at the October 4, 2004 SpaceShipOne X-Prize flight at Mojave. Bob brought his good friend, Louis Zamperini to the Hansen Hanger for breakfast before the launch that day.
Let's back up to Bob's youth and military service. He was born in Memphis, Tenn. and during World War II, at the age of 17; he volunteered for the U.S. Navy and was training to go into submarines when he was accepted in the United States Naval Academy at the war's end. As a midshipman he served on various warships, including a heavy cruiser, destroyer, carrier and the battleship USS North Carolina in which his GQ (General Quarters) station was the 16" gun turret.
Bob graduated in 1949 with a degree in engineering from the United States Naval Academy and received word a few weeks before graduation that the newly formed U.S. Air Force (formed in 1947) wanted volunteers from Annapolis and West Point.
The U.S. Air Force didn't have an academy until 1955, so in the interim years the Naval Academy played a significant role in building the U.S. Air Force officer corps.
Many midshipmen chose the new and growing Air Force because of the promising opportunities to fly in the latest jet aircraft. They were promised immediate entry into flight training and that appealed to Bob. He completed flight training at Randolph Field, Texas and soloed in a North American T-6 Texan. His advance training was at Chandler, Ariz. flying the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star. His next assignment was to an operational fighter group flying the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and the Republic F-84 Thunderjet.
Bob volunteered for a combat tour in Korea in 1952, flying the F-84 in a fighter-bomber unit at K-2 Airport, Taegu, Korea. In 1952, he returned to Germany to fly the F-86F Sabre. Later that same year, he was assigned to Eglin AFB in Florida as a test pilot in fighter test and the U.S. Armament Center.
After his active service with the USAF, Bob joined the Tennessee Air National Guard and flew a variety of aircraft, including: North America P-51, Douglas A-26, Lockheed RF-80, Republic RF-84 and the Lockheed F-104A.
In 1960, he became a civilian test pilot for Lockheed, flying all models of the F-104 Starfighter. He worked closely with the Air Forces of Canada, Japan, Germany and Italy and made the first flight of the Fiat-Aeritalia F-104S produced in Italy under license from Lockheed.
In 1962, Bob moved on to flying the fastest and highest flying aircraft ever built, including the A-12, YF-12A and the SR-71.
Bob was recognized by the Society of Experimental Test Pilots in 1964 with the Ivan C. Kincheloe Award for his work on Lockheed's super-secret Blackbird program. (The Mercury 7 astronauts received the Kincheloe Award the year before). He has been acknowledged by many other well-known aviation organizations: The National Aviation Hall of Fame; The Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame; The California Aviation Hall of Fame; The Air Force Flight Test Historical Foundation awarded the Blackbird Laurels Medallions; the 2001 Godfrey L. Cabot Award in New England; and he was distinguished on the Aerospace Walk of Honor by the City of Lancaster.
Just recently, he received the first-ever March Field Air Museum Champions of Flight Award, presented by legendary pilot/adventurer, Dick Rutan.
Robert J. "Bob" Gilliland is a true Southern Gentleman and outstanding aviation legend. My husband, Al and I, feel honored to call him our friend.
See you on our next flight!