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The Life of a Test Pilot and Birth of an American Icon

On the morning of December 22, 1964, at a small, closely guarded airstrip in the desert town of Palmdale, California, Lockheed test pilot Bob Gilliland stepped into a strange-looking aircraft and roared into aviation history.

Developed at the super-secret Skunk Works, the SR-71 Blackbird was a technological marvel. In fact, more than a half century later, the Mach 3–plus titanium wonder, designed by Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, remains the world’s fastest jet.

It took a test pilot with the right combination of intelligence, skill, and nerve to make the first flight of the SR-71, and the thirty-eight-year-old Gilliland had spent much of his life pushing the edge.

In Speed one of America’s greatest test pilots collaborates with acclaimed journalist Keith Dunnavant to tell his remarkable story: How he was pushed to excel by his demanding father. How a lucky envelope at the U.S. Naval Academy altered the trajectory of his life. How he talked his way into U.S. Air Force fighters at the dawn of the jet age, despite being told he was too tall. How he made the conscious decision to trade the security of the business world for the dangerous life of an experimental test pilot, including time at the clandestine base Area 51, working on the Central Intelligence Agency’s Oxcart program.

The narrative focuses most intently on Gilliland’s years as the chief test pilot of the SR-71, as he played a leading role in the development of the entire fleet of spy planes while surviving several emergencies that very nearly ended in disaster.

Waging the Cold War at 85,000 feet, the SR-71 became an unrivaled intelligence-gathering asset for the U.S. Air Force, invulnerable to enemy defenses for a quarter century.

Gilliland’s work with the SR-71 defined him, especially after the Cold War, when many of the secrets began to be revealed and the plane emerged from the shadows—not just as a tangible museum artifact but as an icon that burrowed deep into the national consciousness.

Like the Blackbird itself, Speed is a story animated by the power of ambition and risk-taking during the heady days of the American Century.


Editorial Reviews


“Bob Gilliland spent his entire career pushing life’s boundaries. In Speed we see him play a pivotal role as the SR-71 Blackbird dramatically extended the aviation frontier. You’ll love this thrill ride into the life of a legendary test pilot. This book brings you so close to the action that you can feel the excitement and smell the jet fuel.”—Gen. Steve Ritchie, the only U.S. Air Force fighter pilot ace of the Vietnam War

— Gen. Steve Ritchie

“This fascinating book puts you in the cockpit with Bob Gilliland.”—Jim Lovell, astronaut and commander of Apollo 13

— Jim Lovell

“I wholeheartedly recommend this book! It gives great insight into the story of one of America’s greatest test pilots and his crucial work in making the Blackbird program successful.”—Ed Yeilding, SR-71 pilot, Smithsonian flight speed record holder

— Ed Yeilding

“Bob had an exemplary military career and was a consummate test pilot. . . . He didn’t just pave the way for future test pilots; he trailblazed new roads courageously, safely, and without a scratch. Bob was truly a hero’s hero.”—Dick Rutan, co-pilot of the Voyager aircraft

— Dick Rutan

“Super read! There exists a Circle of Aviators, all truly great ones. Bob Gilliland remains the highest, the fastest, and most respected.”—Dan Pedersen, founder of the U.S. Navy’s Top Gun program

— Dan Pedersen

About the Author

Bob Gilliland logged more experimental flight test time above Mach 2 and Mach 3 than any other pilot in history. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame and the International Air and Space Hall of Fame, and he was presented with the Iven C. Kincheloe Award. A native of Memphis, Gilliland graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, transferred to the newly independent U.S. Air Force, and flew twenty-five combat missions as an F-84 fighter pilot in the Korean War. He died at the age of ninety-three on July 4, 2019.

Keith Dunnavant is the author of eight books, including Spy Pilot, a true story of Cold War intrigue and redemption, as well as definitive biographies of Paul “Bear” Bryant, Joe Montana, and Bart Starr. He goes deeper into the Blackbird story in his documentary film, First Flight, Last Flight. Once a prominent sportswriter and magazine entrepreneur and editor, Dunnavant directed coverage of sports, business, media, culture, and politics. He has been a featured historian on ESPN, CBS, HBO, Showtime, Epix, and SEC Network.

Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is a retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot and airline captain who became world famous after the so-called Miracle on the Hudson. He is the coauthor of the New York Times best seller Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters.

2017 Inductee into the National Aviation Hall of Fame

National Aviation Hall of FameRobert 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.

Read more about the “Oscar Night of Aviation”

Read more about the Four Legends of Air and Space Selected to Serve as Presenters at 2017 National Aviation Hall of Fame Ceremony.

Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland to be Grand Marshal of the 51st Annual Palm Desert Golf Cart Parade

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.

SR-71 Symposium

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.