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

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Pub Date 01 Jun 2021 | Archive Date 01 Jun 2021

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On 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.

On 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...

Advance Praise

“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

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

“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

“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, commander, Rutan Voyager

“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

“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...

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Featured Reviews

Wow, what a ride of a book! This was a truly inspirational novel about a true American aviator. I could not put this book down. The story was compelling and full of action and first hand insights from various participants. A great aviation story and a certain must read! Thank you to #NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for my honest review.

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Speed: The Life of a Test Pilot and Birth of an American Icon by Bob Gilliland and Keith Dunavant with an introduction by Chelsey Sullenberger is a remarkable book. It tells the story of Bob Gilliland who became part of aviation history as the chief test pilot of the SR-71 Blackbird, which became the most important intelligence-gathering asset that the Air Force had. It is still the world's fastest jet, 50 years after being developed. Gilliland has a fascinating story and a combination of luck, determination, intelligence and daring led him to achieve things that most people can only dream of. While the book focuses on his work with the SR-71 Blackbird, Gilliland also spent time at the infamous Area 51 where he worked on the CIA Oxcart program involving the Lockheed A-13 high-altitude, Mach 3+ reconnaissance aircraft and he played an important part in the development of the US fleet of spy planes. I highly recommend this book. It is an exciting story that I can see being made into a movie. Thank you to NetGalley, the author, and the publisher for providing me with a digital copy of this book prior to publication in exchange for my review. This review is being posted immediately to my GoodReads account and will be posted on Amazon and Barnes and Noble upon the book's publication.

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3.5 rounded up This was such an interesting book. I liked it so much more than I had expected to. Learned a lot if interesting information. Thanks to Netgalley for the opportunity to read this book

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4.5⭐ Robert J. "Bob" Gilliland, what a guy!! I've always wonder why anyone would do this for a living, becoming a test pilot. It's a dangerous job testing an unproven technology at high altitudes. Now that I've finished reading this fascinating book, it becomes clear test pilots share some unique characteristics; knowledgeable, quick thinking and decision making, resourceful, problem solver, and they're fearless. Bob Gilliland was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1926. After graduating high school in 1944, he volunteered and joined the US Navy. Bob graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1949 and joined a new branch the United States Air Force, serving as a F-84 fighter pilot during the cold war in Germany and during the Korean War. Bob displayed a go-getter and work the problem attitude from early on. After he flunk the recruitment physical exam from low blood pressure he sought help. Through Bob's father, Frank and a physician and his wife, Bob was prescribed steak, eggs and beer. He passed the physical exam. Bob took the Naval Academy test and scored well, but was rejected from hadn't taken any chemistry. His path as Naval aviator was stalled, but he didn't want to wait and signed up as enlisted man. Somehow Bob managed to speak to Senator McKellar from Tennessee on the phone and he pulled couple strings so Bob was back in school taking chemistry at Vanderbilt. Bob trained on the b-25 bombers, but realized his need for control and zoom the sky. He knew he was suited for a single engine fighter plane, but with his height of 6'3", he was too tall for a small cockpit as was determined by the Pentagon. Once again, Bob was able to persuaded a Colonel at his house to have him switch with a colleague who wanted to fly a bomber. Later in his career, Bob used his influence to push for more cockpit room for someone his size in the SR-71. Manufactured by Lockheed's top secret project division "Skunk Works" for US Air Force, the SR-71 Blackbird was designed by "Kelly" Johnson, an aeronautical and systems engineer. Bob Gilliland is the Chief Test Pilot of the SR-71, its maiden flight was on December 22, 1964. The flight lasted one hour at a speed of over 1,000 mph at 50,000 feet. To this day, over five decades later, the Blackbird still holds the record for manned jet aircraft for speed and ceiling. The Blackbirds were designed to cruise at Mach 3+ (over three times the speed of sound), over 2,200 mph and at altitude up to 85,000 feet. It flew from Los Angeles to Washington, DC in 64 mins and 20 seconds. Not only did Bob tested new jets, but he's also a flight instructor to many leading pilots from NATO countries. His role in developing the world's fastest plane was vital to the US intelligence area. Bob Gilliland was among the legend in aviation and was recognized and honored for his contribution to the field many times. He was inducted to The National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2017. Bob Gilliland passed away on July 4, 2019. He was 93. This book has 19 illustrations of the Gilliland's family, Kelly Johnson, The Blackbird, and Bob with other legends in aerospace; Andrew Green, Eric Brown and Neil Armstrong. Thank you to Potomac Books and Netgalley for this ARC. Pub date June 1, 2021

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From the first person to ever pilot an SR-71, <i>Speed</i> is nonstop action. Test pilots have a reputation for being wild and reckless, refusing to be constrained by such pesky things as rules, and always willing to push the envelope in whatever context arises. And Bob Gilliland...fits that bill completely. Propelled by intellect, general aptitude, a fair amount of luck, and sheer stubbornness, Gilliland came to clock more hours at Mach 2+ (and 3+) than any other aviator. Determined to become a Naval aviator, Gilliland took the entrance exam for the Naval Academy and scored high marks, only to be rejected for not having had chemistry in high school. During a very brief enlistment, he was able to draw enough attention to himself (and pull a few strings) to get permission to take a chemistry class at Vanderbilt that set him up to transition easily into the Academy in the fall. Once there, he continued to excel academically and yet almost failed to graduate, taking an almost sordid pride in the unique distinction of graduating with the most demerits in the history of the institution. While anyone else would have been dismissed after even one of his several escapades, his connections kept him on track for the career that was clearly his destiny. When it came time to matriculate into his career, Gilliland faced a choice: the US Air Force had just recently been established, and graduates of the other service academies were given the option to commission into the Air Force instead until their academy could be fully established. There was so much interest among his class that a lottery had to be held. Despite offering his winning ticket to a classmate, luck shown brightly on them both, and off to the Air Force they went. Once there, Bob was told he was too tall to be a fighter pilot; men of his size simply could not be accommodated in the small cockpits of the fastest and most agile planes. Relegated to the world of bombers, Bob tried to keep his spirits up, but he knew he belonged in jets. Managing to leverage his connection to an O-6 to get his way once again, Bob's career survived yet another threat. Years later, he was approached for a very secretive project, one that required his solid commitment before he could learn any details about it. After due consideration, Gilliland leapt at the opportunity to join a colleague he fully trusted at what he would later learn was Skunk Works--the division best known for developing the famed SR-71. And indeed, it was the SR-71 that took Gilliland's career to whole new heights and speeds. Lest anyone forget, being a test pilot is extraordinarily dangerous, and some of the near misses described in this book are purely terrifying. It is a true testament to Gilliland's extraordinary skill--and again, his tremendous luck--that he was able to accomplish what he did. Overall, a fast-paced and action-packed short read. Definitely recommend to any avgeeks and adrenaline junkies out there. My deep appreciation to Potomac Books and NetGalley for the eARC in exchange for the review.

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