On Patrol staff

“You have to really want to do it and incur the danger, whatever that may be.”

Memphis native, Robert J. Gilliland, began his military career directly out of high school. Having received early application to the United States Naval Academy, he enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17.

Gilliland’s class at the Naval Academy was the first to be offered the opportunity of a commission in the Air Force.

Upon completion of pilot training, he was stationed in Germany where he flew P-47 Thunderbolts and F-84 Thunderjets. In 1952, Gilliland was sent to Daegu, Korea, to fly combat missions.

In 1954, he left active duty military service and moved back home where he joined the Tennessee National Guard. He continued to fly as a test pilot for Lockheed Martin.

Gilliland test-piloted every iteration of the F-104 Starfighter before joining Lockheed’s Skunk Works Division, working for the aircraft’s renowned designer Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson.

Johnson also designed the then-top secret SR-71 Blackbird, which broke three records in 1976 for the “fastest air breathing manned aircraft.” Before that, however, it was

Gilliland who first piloted the jet designed for the CIA on December 22, 1964.

That first flight lasted about an hour, and Gilliland, call sign Dutch 51, clocked speeds of Mach 1.5 at 50,000 feet. That speed was an accomplishment for the SR-71, but not for the jet’s first pilot who had logged more experimental supersonic flight test time above Mach 2 and Mach 3 than any other pilot. In total, Gilliland has logged more than 6,500 flight hours.

The Lockheed JetStar was the last aircraft he piloted before retiring from Lockheed in 1975. Today, he is involved in speaking engagements regarding his experiences.

In 1964, the Society of Experimental Test Pilots presented Gilliland with the Ivan C. Kincheloe Award for his significant contributions during the Blackbird flight test programs. Fourteen years later, Gilliland, and fellow test pilot Darryl Greenamyer, were involved in setting a world restricted altitude speed record of 982.26 mph flying a highly modified F-104RB aircraft.

In 2002, Gilliland also received the Godfrey L. Cabot Award, which recognizes unique, significant, and unparalleled contributions to advance and foster aviation or space flight. He serves as a trustee of the Association of Naval Aviators.