After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1949, Gilliland joined the newly independent U.S. Air Force, where he flew fighter jets. After patrolling post-World War II Germany, Gilliland, still only a second lieutenant, won his air wing’s “top gun” competition. During the Korean War, he flew 20 missions in F-84 fighters, and then was assigned to the Air Force Research and Development team, where he flew virtually every aircraft the Air Force had. After retiring from the service, he returned to Nashville, Tenn., where he had grown up, but apparently got bored: he applied to aircraft manufacturer Lockheed as a test pilot, first on the F-104 Starfighter, and then as the chief pilot for European production of the plane in Italy. He was also an instructor for that fighter.
When Lockheed “Skunk Works” legend Clarence “Kelly” Johnson was working on an important new project in 1962, he personally asked for Gilliland to be its chief test pilot. The project: the SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance plane. When it was finally ready to fly on December 22, 1964, Gilliland was in the seat. Most of the SR-71’s capabilities were top secret for most of its tenure, but it was eventually revealed that the plane could cruise above 85,000 feet, and could sustain speeds above Mach 3 — three times the speed of sound. And the first person to ever fly one was Bob Gilliland. In fact, the project was so important that the first person to ever fly every one of the SR-71s to come out of the factory was Bob Gilliland: it wouldn’t be sent to the U.S. Air Force unless Gilliland gave each one his OK. Even today, according to NASA, “the Blackbirds remain the world’s fastest and highest-flying production aircraft ever built.” It flew on more than 3,500 missions before it was retired in 1999 — when “spy” satellites finally exceeded the Blackbird’s reconnaissance capabilities. In the meantime, Gilliland clocked more experimental hours flying above Mach 3 — and above Mach 2 — than any other test pilot in history. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2017, as well as the California Aviation Hall of Fame, and the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame. Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland died in Rancho Mirage, Calif., on July 4. He was 93.