Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland, former test pilot and the first man to fly the SR-71 spy plane, died Thursday, July 4, at the age of 93.
Throughout his life, Gilliland was a pathfinder. During WWII, at the age of 17, he volunteered for the U.S. Navy and by the war’s end was accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy, where he studied engineering. At the time of his graduation in 1949, the newly independent U.S. Air Force was in need of pilots, and Gilliland’s class was the first to be offered the rare opportunity to switch to this new military branch. Knowing it would allow him to go to flight school, he immediately accepted.
Following flight school, Gilliland served in the Korean War. He was later selected for the elite Air Force Research and Development team, where he had the opportunity to fly almost every aircraft in the USAF inventory.
Gilliland was recruited to the Lockheed Skunk Works® in 1961, where he became a protégé of legendary aircraft designer Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson. Working in secret, 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.