A Test Pilot’s Life
The authorized biography of test pilot Robert J. Gilliland takes readers deep into the life of the first man to fly the SR-71 Blackbird, the world’s fastest, highest-flying plane. Starting with his childhood in Memphis during 1920s and ‘30s and culminating with his induction into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2017, DUTCH 51 sketches the definitive portrait of a man who accumulated more experimental testing time above Mach 3 than any pilot in history. Who was this amiable but ambitious man who had “the right stuff” to put his life on the line time and again in unproven aircraft? What skills did he have that set him apart? Based on extensive interviews with Gilliland and dozens of his colleagues, friends, and relatives—including aviation and military legends such as Bob Cardenas, Jim Lovell, Norman Gaddis, Darryl Greenamyer, and Joe Kittinger—the book sets out to answer these questions and others while connecting the dots between his Naval Academy days…his fortuitous timing as part of the newly independent Air Force’s transition from propellers to jets…his service as a fighter pilot in the Korean War…and his time as a test pilot of the F-104, the world’s first Mach 2 fighter. Eventually, these formative experiences led him into the shadowy world of Lockheed’s super-secret Skunk Works and the hidden CIA outpost known as Area 51, where he was deeply involved in one of the most sensitive, and clandestine, Cold War missions, while working closely with legendary designer Kelly Johnson. Now this aviation icon finally tells his story, against the backdrop of a fascinating time and place…
An exclusive excerpt from DUTCH 51: A Test Pilot’s Life
Gilliland would always remember the first time he was summoned to Kelly Johnson’s office. It was in early 1962, before he knew what he didn’t know.
“We used to call it ‘Going behind the Iron Curtain,'” he recalled, an apt description dripping with a certain irony.
The precursor to this seminal moment happened several days earlier while he was riding in Lou Schalk’s car.
The son of an Iowa veterinarian, Schalk was an amiable West Point man, class of 1948, who had transferred to the newly independent Air Force and distinguished himself as both instructor and test pilot. He joined Lockheed in 1957 and was assigned to the Skunk Works, where he eventually became chief test pilot. Despite their close friendship, Gilliland did not know anything about the secret project he was testing.
“I think you need to come over with us,” Schalk said.
“What is it?” Bob shot back.
“I can’t tell you.”
“How do I know I want to do it?”
Schalk grinned. “You don’t.”
After Schalk and fellow test pilot Tony LeVier told him Kelly wanted to see him, he made an appointment and drove to Burbank. It was the first time he had ever been allowed into the cloistered atmosphere of Building 82, and when he walked into the plant and exchanged pleasantries with Vera Palm, Johnson’s secretary, she said, “He’s in there waiting on you now.”
Inside his small office, Johnson wasted no time getting to the point, telling Gilliland that he had been investigating him and had heard good things about him from two of his best pilots and an unnamed engineer. (In time, Bob would believe the other man who recommended him was Gene Reynolds, whose judgment was deeply valued by Johnson.)
“I know you like that 104 and those 104 guys like you,” he said, “but I’ve got something here that’s faster than the 104, goes higher than the 104, and goes farther than the 104…”
Bob was intrigued, especially when Johnson stood up, motioned him to the doorway and said, “Let’s go out and take a look at it.”
His first glimpse of the sleek machine, which was still being built on the adjacent hangar floor, was memorable, because it was unlike anything he had ever seen. It looked futuristic, and fast. “This came as a complete surprise,” he said. “I knew nothing at all about the project, because it was being kept a total secret.”
He didn’t even know what to call it.
The thought of flying the new bird excited him, but after Johnson made clear that he wanted Bob to join the project as a test pilot right away, Gilliland began explaining that he had been assigned to Italy and would be leaving soon. The F-104 was a big money maker for the company, and revenue equaled corporate power. The Italians were paying Lockheed (and General Electric, which manufactured the engine) millions to produce the Starfighter, and the executives wanted Gilliland on site to make the deal work. The mysterious new plane would have to wait.
Excerpted from DUTCH 51, Copyright 2017, Robert J. Gilliland.
All rights reserved.
2017 Inductee into the National Aviation Hall of Fame
Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland is one of four 2017 inductees into the National Aviation Hall of Fame who will be honored at the 55th Annual NAHF Enshrinement & Ceremony on Saturday, October 28, 2017 at Fort Worth Alliance Airport in Fort Worth, Texas.
The Inductees in the NAHF Class of 2017 are; Major General Charles F. Bolden, Jr., USMC (Ret), four-time Shuttle astronaut and former NASA Administrator; the late Captain Scott Carpenter, USN, one of the original ‘Mercury 7’ astronauts and the second American to orbit the Earth; Robert J. Gilliland, pioneering super-sonic SR-71 program test pilot; and the late Sir Frank Whittle, the inventor of the revolutionary turbojet engine.
Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland to be Grand Marshal of the 51st Annual Palm Desert Golf Cart Parade
51st Annual Palm Desert Golf Cart Parade
Theme “Area 51: Palm Desert is Out of this World”
Grand Marshal: Robert “Bob” Gilliland
California Aviation Hall of Fame Inductee and First Man to Fly the World’s Fastest and Highest Airplane – the SR-71 Blackbird and Palm Desert Resident
Sunday, October 25, 2015 – Parade Steps off at 1pm
Experience the spectacular color, pageantry and fun as scores of whimsically decorated golf carts and bands march down Palm Desert’s famous shop-’til-you-drop El Paseo, in the first major event of the season!
For more information click here.
The Desert Sun – Former test pilot to lead golf cart parade: Read Story
California Aviation Hall of Fame
Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland was recently inaugurated as one of four 2015 inductees into the California Aviation Hall of Fame. The honor was bestowed at the 2nd Annual Induction Ceremony and Dinner on April 25, 2015 at the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica, California.
The California Aviation Hall of Fame was established and registered with the Secretary of State of California in 2010 as a subsidiary of the Museum of Flying with the mission to recognize, commemorate and educate the public on the most influential individuals that made a significant impact on the growth and development of the aviation and aerospace.
At the event, the inductees received a medallion and a permanent exhibit case was unveiled featuring their awards, decorations, photos and personal memorabilia. Other 2015 honorees are Iris Cummings Critchell, Lt. Col. Fitzhugh “Fitz” Fulton, Jr., and Burt Rutan.
Biography in Production
Well-known author and historian Keith Dunnavant is currently working on a biography about Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland. Dunnavant has penned five non-fiction books, founded a series of magazines, and produces documentary films. His journalism has spanned three genres including sports, business and general interest. The Gilliland biography is currently in production with an expected release date in 2016 or 2017.
Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland was part of the panel for a special SR-71 Symposium, during the SR-71 Weekend at March Field Air Museum in Riverside, California. This successful event was held April 18-19 and attended by SR-71 crewmembers and their families, museum members and guests. Video of the symposium can be viewed here.