FLY LIKE AN EAGLE - The Story of Bob Gilliland

by Susie Hodgson

It was December 22 of 1964... about a year after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It would become a momentous day, but for a much better reason. And it had to do with a very fast plane and an exceptional pilot.

Aviator Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland was born in Memphis, TN in 1926. After completing private school, he applied to enter the military. Soon he entered the US Naval Academy, graduating in 1949. Later he joined the newly-independent Air Force, flying in post-war Germany and later in the Korean War.

Gilliland was a force to be reckoned with. He was a master pilot. He had a true gift for flying which did not go unnoticed by world-famous aviation designer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson and star of Lockheed’s secret, top-level operation Skunk Works. Kelly later also served as a VP and was on the Lockheed Board of Directors. Meanwhile, Gilliland became a protégé of Kelly’s... one of his best. Gilliland flew the finest planes made and instructed top pilots from around the world. And that’s why Gilliland was chosen for that top-secret, unbelievable, super-fast flight on December 22, 1964.

Let’s look at that 1964 flight. Remember, it was the middle of the Cold War. Some years before, President Eisenhower instructed the military to come up with the fastest ever military plane possible. They say Gary Powers had recently been shot down over the USSR only days before a major summit between USSR’s Khrushchev and our own U.S. President. The timing couldn’t have been worse. Ike ordered a faster, hopefully indestructible plane – and one that could not be intercepted. So Lockheed (meaning Kelly Johnson and his team, which included Chief Test Pilot Bob Gilliland) came up with a family of incredible Blackbird planes, which at last comprised what became known as the amazing SR-71 Blackbird.

Flying the SR-71 that December day was a dangerous, top-secret flight and very few witnesses were allowed to watch. You’ve probably all heard the saying, “If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you” – it was that kind of mission. The plane did its job (so did Bob!) The SR-71 became the fastest, high-performance aircraft ever built. It was created to intimidate and best the Soviet Union – and it did.

Bob did it – and how. He flew at a speed of nearly 1,000 miles an hour and could fly from L.A. to Wash. D.C. in 64 minutes.

Bob Gilliland went on to be recognized and awarded several extremely highly-regarded honors. Along with such greats as Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and others, Gilliland was named one of the five legends in aviation history. He was honored at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, and was bestowed many, many more honors. Without question, he was a hero in aviation history.

Sadly, Bob Gilliland died in 2019, leaving behind two accomplished adult children – one a doctor and the other a lawyer. His son went on to help co-author a book about his famous father’s astonishing feats, a book entitled Speed (and highly recommended). Both Bob Gilliland Sr. and Bob Gilliland Jr. have spoken at our museum along with other aviation pioneers, much to the joy and admiration of our huge Lockheed-lovers’ (and aviation aficionados’) “family.”

Bob has been called superlatives that go beyond being “just” a hero. He has been described as classy, a risk-taker, a true friend, mischievous with a wink, stubborn and brilliant. He’s certainly a hero to us!

Here are a few other “tidbits”:

Bob was initially rejected from the military, it is said, because he had LOW blood pressure. So his doctor prescribed a diet of steak, eggs and beer! (Not a bad prescription, I’d say – and it worked!)

There was another actor also named – not Robert, but Richard Gilliland. He was NOT the famous aviator described here, although many of us have mistaken one for the other. RICHARD was married to the famous actress Jean Smart. He died at the young age of 71.

Bob logged more test flight hours at Mach 3 than any other pilot.

As a young second lieutenant in Germany, Bob won a competition that second lieutenants never seemed to win: the Air Wing’s “Top Gun” competition. (Surely you’ve heard of Top Gun!)

Gilliland was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2017.

Come see our large exhibit (a whole room!) dedicated to Lockheed! And while you’re at it, why not support your city and become a member or docent (or both!) of our wonderful Historical Society? We’re a fun bunch and would love to have you join us! You’ll see why it’s called Burbank’s hidden gem.

The Burbank Historical Society/Gordon R. Howard Museum
Located in George Izay Park, right next to the Creative Arts Center
Phone: (818) 841-6333
Web site:

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