Dr Sky and Photorecon Interview Aviation Legend Robert “Bob” Gilliland


In our ongoing series Legends In Aviation,  the Photorecon team was honored to sit down with a living legend and hear the first hand account of how one man, with the support of many, took the fastest ‘air-breathing manned aircraft’ ever produced aloft for the first time.  That man was Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland, call sign “Dutch 51;” The aircraft, the legendary SR-71 Blackbird.

In the early afternoon of December 22, 1964, Kelly Johnson, Lockheed’s legendary aircraft designer, shook hands with his Chief Test Pilot and wished him well as he mounted the ladder and strapped into the cockpit of Kelly’s finest creation, the yet unnamed and untested SR-71 Blackbird, tail number 17950. Few were present for its top secret first flight, but all who were knew the importance of its success in maintaining America’s supremacy in manned aviation amid the tensions of the Cold War world. The pilot was Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland, call sign “Dutch 51;” the place was Edwards Air Force Base in the California high desert. Following clearance for take-off, Bob eased the Blackbird into the sky, out to Mach 1.5 at 50,000 feet in its first flight and into the annals of aviation history. When asked about the first flight, Chief Test Pilot Bob Gilliland commented:  “The first flight was relatively uneventful. Just one emergency, and another minor problem. A canopy-unsafe light illuminated at Mach 1.2 on the way to 1.5 MACH at 50,000 feet, and later, during a fly-by requested by Kelly Johnson, fuel siphoning occurred. Not bad, as initial test flights go”.

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. The SR-71 became the fastest, high performance aircraft ever built. While active, it reportedly outran nearly 4,000 SAM missiles launched over time in attempts to bring it down. Too fast ever to catch or intercept, the Blackbird did its job well for our country, providing global strategic reconnaissance over a span of six different presidencies. Since 1976, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird has held the world record for the fastest ‘air-breathing manned aircraft’ with a recorded speed of 1,905.81 knots (2,193.2 mph; 3,529.6 km/h). That works out to a staggering 36.55 miles/58.83 km per minute.

Bob was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1926 and graduated from The Webb School in Bell Buckle, Tennessee in 1944. At age 17, Bob volunteered for the US Navy and was training to go into submarines when he was accepted into the US 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 station was the 16 inch gun turret. Bob graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1949. He took his commission in the Air Force where he could go immediately to flight school. He went on to fly the Republic F-84 Thunderjet in combat against MIGS in Korea and was then selected after the war for the elite Air Force Research and Development team, where he flew virtually every aircraft in the USAF inventory including “expanding the envelope” in the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. As a Lockheed F-104 instructor pilot, Bob taught some of the world’s leading pilots how to fly the Starfighter. Some of his students included WW2 Luftwaffe fighter aces Gunther Rall, and Johannes Steinhoff as well as Canada’s Wing Commander Kenneth Lett and USAF General John Dunning. Remarkably, Bob has made 5 successful “dead stick” landings in the F-104 – an amazing accomplishment given that the F-104 glides like a “toolbox” and is extremely unforgiving of pilot errors. Bob was also involved with fellow Lockheed test pilot Darryl Greenamyer in breaking the FAI world restricted altitude speed record of 988.26 mph in a highly modified F-104 on October 24, 1978.

Bob Gilliland has logged more test flight hours at Mach 3 than any other pilot in the world. He has been recognized and honored for his work many times. In the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, he is honored for making one of the greatest contributions to aviation in his time as a test pilot/astronaut joining the 7 Mercury astronauts, Charles Lindberg and Howard Hughes in the same honor. Bob is a fellow in the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and a recipient of the “Lifetime Achievement Award” by the Flight Test Historical Foundation for his distinguished aviation career. Bob 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. Among his many honors, the one which he seems to have enjoyed the most, was the “Legends of Aerospace Tour” to Europe and the Middle East in March of 2010. As one of America’s five Legends, along with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan, Jim Lovell, and Vietnam fighter ace Steve Ritchie, the Tour stopped at many “down range” US military bases and hospitals. Former Good Morning America host David Hartman served as the moderator for the Tour. The Legends spoke daily to thousands of our servicemen defending our interests abroad, reminding Bob, he said with a smile, of how much he had enjoyed seeing Bob Hope and Betty Grable visit his airbase when he was flying combat in Korea.

The chance to meet a legend.

Photorecon has worked to preserve the history of aviation pioneers and programs, so future generations can enjoy their accomplishments. By doing so, we were honored to be invited as associate members into the  Roadrunners Internationale, a group preserving the history of the aviation pioneers and programs that developed the U-2, A-12, YF -12 and SR-71 aircraft during the cold war. While attending The 24th annual Roadrunners Internationale reunion  held October 5 – 8, 2015 in Las Vegas, NV. we had the opportunity to meet Robert Gilliland Jr. who was attending for his father. We  presented  him with a piece of aviation artwork featuring the A-12 aircraft, produced by our very own Dave Budd.   http://photorecon.net/roadrunners-internationale-24th-reunion/.  While chatting with Robert Jr. at the reunion, we made arrangements to conduct an audio interview with his father  as soon as we returned from the reunion. That interview, conducted by my brother Steve Kates “DrSky”, is featured below in this article. It also laid the ground work for a sit-down with Bob himself. Dave would work up some special artwork to honor his father’s historic first flight, a date was set, and we couldn’t wait!

Arriving for our meeting, we spotted a lone auto parked in the parking lot… it was a blacked-out BMW with ” SR-71″ emblazoned on the plate. We knew we were in the right location, and it turns out that the car is Robert Jr’s; right away we knew this was a family that shared their  fathers accomplishments with pride. We were greeted by his son Robert, who informed us his father was being picked up and would join us soon for the meet and greet. While sitting in an office, we couldn’t help but notice all the memorabilia surrounding us. Photos of Bob with other legends of aviation, plus a few astronauts, adorned the walls. After all, this was a man who had a long, respected career, and who had the chance to work and meet many pioneers of aviation.

Bob arrived looking healthy and alert, proudly wearing his SR-71 hat, albeit in a wheel chair due to his age. This was a man who still had the right stuff.  We were in awe to be in his presence and able to speak candidly about  the SR -71 program, Kelly Johnson, and what it was like to see the SR-71 for the first time.  To that he responded “well it was in pieces on the hangar floor and we were to fly this thing in 2 months, and we did”  The SR -71 was the his favorite but most demanding aircraft, while the F-104 Straighter was a close second.  We chatted with Bob for almost 2 hours. One thing that I will never forget from the interview, is when he responded to our questions with” you guys really know your stuff”. Wow – to hear that from him makes all those late nights reading aviation books and educating ourselves on the subjects of aeronautics worth it.

The time arrived to present Bob with the custom artwork commemorating his first  flight in the SR-71 , and once again Dave knocked it out of the park . Bob commented on the accuracy of the print and was very impressed with Dave’s work. After signing a few copies, Bob signed my famous t-shirt that has been to all our events and autographed by many other legends of aviation.  Bob and his son Robert are true gentleman, taking the time to answer our questions and make us feel at home.

We could have talked all afternoon, but Bob had to get back home and we had a long drive back to Phoenix. Every time we have the opportunity to meet and talk with legends of aviation like Bob, we are reminded of the sacrifice and dedication this generation gave to better mankind and the greatest nation on the face of the earth. We are so honored and  thankful for the opportunity to keep this history alive.

Lets us not forget………………………………

Thank you!!


Bob Gilliland signing Joe’s “Legends of Aviation” shirt


Bob Gilliland signing artwork done by Dave


Bob and his son Robert Gilliland

61-7950  sr71-bob-gilliland sr-71-950-01 SR-71-42 Kelly-Johnson-signed-photo

A couple of videos for you to watch..



Joe Kates

Joe Kates is the founder of Photorecon. Joe has been into aviation since he was a child and has a incredible amount of knowledge to do with planes or aviation in general. Today Joe is the owner and Managing Editor of Photorecon.

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