Honoring an Aviation Legend

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Family and close friends turned out recently to honor the life of legendary aviation test pilot Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland. The private event was held on September 28th 2019 at the March Field Air Museum Riverside, CA.

This location was a fitting place to hold such an occasion, as almost one year prior to the date, Gilliland became the museums' first Champion of Flight. This award calls attention to and celebrates the accomplishments of one aviation or aerospace innovator each year.

The March Field Air Museum’s flagship display is SR-71 61-7975. Each year, for the past two decades, Bob made the trip from his home in Palm Desert to visit the SR-71. He visited so often the staff would say "welcome back to your museum Bob".

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The event was held in the main hangar under the wings of this SR-71. Aviation legends and SR-71 program alumni were on hand to speak of Bob's accomplishments, and the memories they had knowing and working with him. After a luncheon, the guests were called outside to witness several flybys and a missing man formation tribute featuring several warbirds. Guests stayed late into the day to visit and hear more stories of this man's accomplishments, contributions, and learn about a life well lived.

Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland, call sign “Dutch 51;” 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 Thunder Jet 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. Bob helped with “expanding the envelope” of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, and served as an instructor pilot in the sleek jet too.

Gilliland was recruited by the Skunk Works in 1961, where he became a protégé of legendary aircraft designer Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson. In the early afternoon of December 22, 1964, Kelly Johnson 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 place was Edwards Air Force Base in the California high desert. Using his personal call sign of “Dutch 51”, Bob eased the Blackbird into the sky, topping out to Mach 1.5 at 50,000 feet in its first flight… and into the annals of aviation history.

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 manned aircraft ever built.

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. 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.

Those who meet Bob immediately concur with the thoughts of a fellow test pilot, who once identified him simply as “…the smartest, nicest man I have ever known; a classy guy and true friend.”

Blue Skies and Tailwinds "Dutch51"

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