Behind the Episodes: Season 2
Episode 1: Visioneers
Long before a new aircraft can achieve its first flight, well before the first rivet or bolt is put into place and before even the first piece of hardware can be fabricated, a new design must be created and agreed upon by engineers from a variety of fields. Each aircraft design is uniquely created to meet a specific set of parameters and requirements so that it can successfully accomplish its missions. It is the job of conceptual artists like Eric Watanabe to work with engineers from multiple fields to create never before seen designs for new and emerging aircraft technology.
“My job,” Watanabe says, “is to democratize creativity and sketching.”
While in school Watanabe initially studied drawing, painting and graphic design but was strongly influenced by his uncle, an industrial designer for Panasonic, to pursue his own degree in industrial design. Even as a child, Watanabe was fascinated with exploring the way that things around him worked and fit together, especially machinery. Watanabe recalls his childhood toys often being the focus of his curiosity, frequently disassembled in his search to find the spark within them that made the toys seem to come to life.
“I used to love earth-moving machines - backhoes, bulldozers, cranes,” Watanabe says. “They were like dinosaurs, they all had character, they all had a voice. They’re alive. They’re monsters.”
In design, as well as life, it is important to take in and draw inspiration from your surroundings and to maintain a childlike sense of wonderment and creativity, according to Watanabe.
A new concept usually begins only as a description of its mission and the parameters that it must meet. From there the engineers will give a briefing that can include a very rough preliminary concept sketch. Then designers, like Watanabe, create a wire-frame sketch of the product that allows for the concept to be seen all the way through; a skeletal plan of the aircraft to come. At this point the collaboration across fields goes into overdrive to modify the design and build up the full design around the wire-frame concept.
Ever the creative spirit, Watanabe relates the collaborative process of designing an aircraft to that of a conductor and an orchestra creating a symphony. The way that a flute and piano might harmonize and play off of one other brought together by a conductor, so too must the aerodynamics, the support, and the propulsion of an aircraft work in harmony, tied together by a designer. The creative design process for new technology must remain fluid, similar to music, because an idea can change even while it is being drawn.
The ideal, according to Watanabe, is to sketch as fast as your mind can think. As a result, Watanabe prefers to do his initial sketches monochromatic and loose, in a number 3 light-hard lead pencil, before darkening them and scanning them to digitize the design.
“In the beginning,” he says, “I think there is something so natural to doing sketches with a plain old pencil.”
Never without a sketchbook, he will sometimes trade his office space for a stroll around the facility or an unconventional location primarily used for storage. Dimming the lights and setting pencil to paper brings feelings of quiet solitude that can sometimes light a creative spark. Other times an idea will strike while Watanabe drives through the desert landscape dotted with Joshua trees that surrounds Palmdale, jazz music playing from his car’s radio. With his sketchbook nearby, he often pulls over to give time to the idea forming on the paper in front of him.
“When I need help with proportions or beauty, and design, and textures, I always go to nature” Watanabe explains. “And I get blown away every time.”
The association of aircraft to their natural counterpart, birds, is commonplace in everything from their engineering to their names – Nighthawk, Falcon, Raptor, Blackhawk and Kestrel – but for Eric Watanabe, birds are not the only source of inspiration to be found in nature when designing an aircraft. The curve on the petal of a lily, for example, or the power of the lines that trace a grasshopper’s leg and the flexible strength found in a tree from trunk to branch are all aspects of natural beauty that influence Watanabe’s work.
Spending so much time on creative pursuits can be taxing, but Watanabe believes that feeling burnt out is a part of that creative process and that people need time to be burnt out. Creativity comes in waves, according to Watanabe. The excitement can give way to tedium, but then there is a spark of creativity and the excitement takes off anew.
“You live for that rush,” Watanabe says. “You’ve got to catch that wave and ride it for all it’s got.”
The process for categorizing fighter aircraft into generations began in the 1990s but was not a system universally used until more recently. Some variation has developed in sub-classifications used by different aerospace organizations and countries, though all follow the same general structure. By acknowledging and classifying the differences in aircraft technology advancement over time, developmental teams set a precedent allowing for future growth and evolution of fighter aircraft.
The first fighter aircraft to feature jet propulsion emerged in the 1940s, near the end of WWII. These aircraft traveled at subsonic speeds when flying level and were not drastically different from their propeller driven counterparts at the time. Combat engagements had to be conducted within visual range, and there was no form of radar or defensive technology within the aircraft.
The advancements in technology and the ongoing tension of the Cold War saw further advancement in jet fighter systems between the mid-1950s and 1960s. In addition to incorporating new technology and afterburner, the swept wing jet fighters were now able to break the sound barrier and travel at supersonic speeds. Combat engagements still occured primarily within visual proximity, though emerging weapons systems began to pave the way for engagements beyond visual range. The anticipation of nuclear warfare and beyond-visual-range combat lead to a focus on Interceptor and Fighter-Bomber aircraft, as opposed to aircraft designed for close-range dogfighting.
There was a change in priority between the 1960s and 1970s, during the Vietnam War, and close-range maneuverability and attack capabilities became a primary focus of third generation fighter aircraft. Aircraft incorporated more advanced avionics and aerodynamic design enhancements, allowing for sleeker and more maneuverable designs. Third generation aircraft began to identify the need for “multi-role” fighters that would be capable of accommodating versatile mission parameters as needed. Evolving missile and armament technology combined with advanced radar systems allowed for more accurate engagement from beyond-visual-range.
Covering a broader span of time, developed between the 1970s and the 2000s, fourth generation aircraft still remain in service today. Their multi-role capabilities, or the ability to take on air-to-air as well as air-to-ground roles as needed, make them a valuable asset in combat. The F-16 became the first aircraft to incorporate a Fly-By-Wire system. FBW utilizes computers to allow for electronic control the aircraft, as opposed to the previously used hydraulic systems. In addition, use of heads-up display and hands-on-stick-and-throttle systems help pilots maintain focus without needing to remove their hands from flight controls or frequently look down into the cockpit. Advanced avionics, radar, and stealth developments also mark the improvements seen in fourth generation aircraft.
The current fighter generation, fifth generation aircraft, are in a state of ongoing development and production. The F-22 Raptor developed initially by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works program opened the door for fifth generation classification, and from there the development of the F-35 Lightning. The advanced avionics systems and engineering, high stealth capabilities and miniscule radar profile, in addition to advanced onboard computer and processing systems form a stealthy multi-role fighter aircraft unlike any seen before. An array of sensors and computer systems provide pilots the ability to “see” through the aircraft, identify threats prior to being detected themselves, and to communicate information to other aircraft via a network system, creating an advanced level of situational awareness and airspace superiority.
At the time of the F-22’s initial creation, there was no classification for fifth generation aircraft, but the newly created fighter jet certainly exceeded the qualifications of the generation preceding it. In true Skunk Works fashion, engineers and aviation experts worked together to officially create the fifth-generation classification, setting precedent for future expansions of generations as technology progresses.
He has traveled through four continents and 24 countries, narrowly escaped rocket and improvised explosives attacks, received a Joint Service Commendation Medal, has been in a plane crash while transporting classified materials and has held a security clearance for the entirety of his adult life. It sounds like a story straight out of Hollywood, but for Ward Albin these situations are all far from fiction.
Albin joined the military early and served in the Air Force with the military police. After leaving active duty and transitioning to the Air Force Reserves he had decided to pursue a career as a police officer. In the meantime, a friend convinced him to apply for a position with Lockheed Martin, as a temporary job, while looking for something in law enforcement.
“Just on a whim I went down to Lockheed Martin and an employee directed me to where the office was that you can fill out an application and I just walked up and asked for an application, filled it out, and had a job offer later that same day,” Albin said.
With a background in security and the fact that he already possessed an active security clearance Albin’s skill were in high demand among an industry experiencing rapid growth and the emergence of multiple sensitive projects. The call with a job offer came in before he had even returned home from applying for it and he joined the security team for Lockheed Martin Skunk Works® in 1984.
Thirty-five years later, advancing technology and ease of access to information has heavily impacted the way that security professionals, like Albin, conduct their operations. From the rapid availability of resources for stories to be checked against to the ever-increasing threats of information leakage through emerging platforms, the technology available in today’s modern world has created an entirely new security landscape than what Albin first encountered in the 1980’s.
“It’s harder. Our job is a lot harder because there’s so much information out there and everything can be checked,” he said of the new challenges facing security operations.
After his initial six months working as a security guard, working night shifts and still pursuing law enforcement options, Albin was offered a new position as a Security Representative for the Special Projects. He agreed to give it a try and soon all of his plans to change careers went out the window – he was hooked.
In addition to overseeing security operations for advanced development projects Albin spent a year working in the communications vault. The Vault, aptly named, was a room buried deep below one of the Skunk Work’s buildings secured by a thick metal safe-like door containing multiple machines and phones for relaying secure information. While there Albin assisted in securing the transmission, receipt and transportation of highly sensitive and classified information.
“We had message traffic coming in from all over the world, because we had offices and activities going on around the world,” Albin said. “My duties were to bring message traffic up to Ben Rich (the former Director of Skunk Works), selected stuff, for him to read every day.”
Transporting classified materials comes with its own set of very specific and very strict rules that must be adhered to as a matter of safety and national security, whether transporting it across the hall or across the country. No stranger to Murphy’s Law, Albin has experienced situations turning from bad to worse while transporting classified materials. One of his most memorable moments of bad luck occurred when he was involved in a plane crash while transporting classified materials at an airport that had been the scene of a drug and firearms bust only a week before.
“We ended up in the drainage ditch, and we were shaken up and a little bruised but were largely unhurt,” he said. “Our Plane had a bent prop and a damaged wing. It was interesting, as we climbed out of the airplane and out of the ditch, we were shortly met later with the volunteer fire department at the airport and the local sheriff. As we’re climbing out trying to figure out ‘well, what do we do next?’ the sheriff started to ask a lot of questions and he was very suspicious of what we were doing – of course we had these brown opaque wrapped packages along with some crates.”
With their cover story falling apart before their eyes and the prospect of arrest looming closer, they made the decision to inform the sheriff of their identities and that they were transporting ‘sensitive’ material, as well as to show him their credentials. Avoiding injury, arrest, and compromising the materials, Albin and his partner were able to rent vehicles to transport the materials across the country in time.
Albin admits that the cover story used for that particular assignment was not one of the strongest, especially taking into account the surrounding circumstances. Most cover stories are created in a way that sheds enough truth to lend the story credence but omits aspects that can expose anything sensitive, he explains.
“The best cover stories are a high degree of truth,” Albin said. “There’s just enough off that you don’t have to lie – you’re just telling them 80 percent of it, and then the 20 percent remainder you just don’t talk about.”
When working with classified information the secure nature of the work extends into the personal lives of the employees as well. Typical conversations such as sharing how a work day went or the location of a business trip become subjects that must remain unvoiced if not given their own cover story. Albin’s own family, for the most part, has refrained from asking him too many questions about his work.
“Later, when my wife kind of understood what was going on,” Albin said, “she goes ‘You know, you’re like the movie True Lies’.”
Similar to the movie’s protagonist, a super spy posing as an every-day salesman, Albin has become well versed in searching for signs of subterfuge while simultaneously creating convincing cover stories to protect operational security and safety.
“A good lie is a good percentage of truth,” Albin explains.
Project “Tagboard” began officially in 1963, launching a mother-daughter reconnaissance duo unlike any seen before them. In an effort to find new ways to keep pilots safe in hostile air space following an incident in 1960 when pilot Gary Powers was shot down on a reconnaissance mission, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division leader Kelly Johnson created a concept for a new unmanned aircraft system. Originally called Q-12, this new system concept aimed to fly high and fast, collecting information deep within hostile territory, and it was designed to be launched from its perch atop the back of modified A-12 aircraft.
Built for the Central Intelligence Agency, the A-12 was a high-altitude, high-speed reconnaissance aircraft that eventually evolved into the iconic SR-71 Blackbird. A modified two-seater A-12 was created to launch the new drone during flight from a set of pylons mounted on the top of the aircraft. The manned aircraft and drone were redesignated M-21 and D-21 respectively because of their nicknames – “Mother” and “Daughter”.
The D-21 could fly faster than a bullet, reaching speeds exceeding Mach 3.3, at an altitude between 87,000 and 95,000 feet, and for a distance of up to 3,000 nautical miles. Rather than being remotely piloted, the drone was preprogrammed with a flight path and it operated independently following launch, making it a true unmanned aircraft. After flying over hostile territory and capturing reconnaissance images, the drone would return to accessible air space and drop its film canisters to be recovered in air by a JC-130 Hercules, using a technique developed by the USAF to capture film cannisters dropped from early satellites, or by ships in the water. Due to the nature of the areas that it would be flying into, after releasing its cargo of film footage, the drone would self-destruct.
Following a test flight mishap in 1966 the M-21 aircraft was retired, and alterations were made to allow the modified D-21B drone to launch from under the wing of a B-52 bomber instead. The D-21B had to be outfitted with a large rocket that could propel it up to necessary speeds after being deployed from the under-wing pylons of the slower aircraft. This new system of launching the D-21B underwent years of turbulent testing and the drone eventually conducted four operational missions before being retired in 1971. Despite its short-lived operational career, the D-21 remains an integral part of unmanned aircraft history and helped to pave the way for work being done today on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance unmanned systems.
Episode 5: Dutch 51
Transcript of Interview with Bob Gilliland, Steve Justice and Robert Gilliland - Recorded on February 23, 2019
Steve Justice: We want to walk people through some of the conversations you and I have had.
Bob Gilliland: Well, I remember one right now.
BG: A lot of people out there call you the new Kelly Johnson. We have to get that in there. I bet you haven’t forgotten that.
SJ: No, I haven’t and I’m very flattered by that, that you would even think that since you actually knew Kelly, and hopefully they just edit that out and don’t use it.
BG: I hope they do use it!
Narration: You may recognize Steve Justice, retired Skunk Works Director of Advanced Development Programs. Earlier this year in February, Steve met up with his friend, Bob Gilliland. Every time they got together Bob would tell stories about his time as a pilot in such a cool, casual way as though everyone must understand what it’s like to fly in an SR-71 for the first time.
SJ: You know, when I told my wife about it, it’s like we’ll always leap at the chance to go out and visit with Bob and his son Robert. And of course Bob comes fully prepared. He has his flight suit with him and a bunch of memorabilia, a number of books that had the airplanes that he flew in it. It was so good to see him again and you know I’m sitting across from this guy that had more flight test time of Mach 2 or Mach 3 than anybody else. That’s the only pilot to have flown every version of the Blackbird, to have worked with all of these icons in the industry and was just as down to earth as you could possibly get. What an honor it was to be able to spend time with someone that lived what I only get to read about. I’ll carry that always.
Narration: On July 4th, 2019, Bob passed away at the age of 93. We are honored to share the stories we captured that day back in February.
SJ: People need to understand where you came from.
BG: Well I was from Memphis, Tennessee and my main interest there was not getting the Mississippi river and me in trouble. Then I went away when I was 14 to Webb’s School near Nashville and my dad had even gone there. He wanted us to get a good education and he knew that’s where I could get it.
SJ: So what year did you graduate?
BG: 1944, when World War II was still on, and I wound up at the Naval Academy.
SJ: What did you do when you got out of the Naval Academy?
BG: Well let me tell ya. I graduated but not into the Navy. I elected to go into the U.S. Air Force because they said that they would put us right into flying, and so I got sent to San Antonio, Texas. That’s where I first soloed.
SJ: So did you always want to fly?
BG: I think I thought I’d like it.
SJ: So you go into the Air Force, and do you immediately go into pilot training?
BG: Yes. After I finished up in San Antonio, then I went over to Arizona, but they had a rule over there that if you were over six feet tall or over 180 [pounds] you had to go to big bombers. And I was over on both counts. Another guy from the Naval Academy, but he was a short guy, he was ordered to go over there to San Antonio but he’d get to fly fighters there. So Saturday night I knocked on the door of the commanding officer and he was having a bunch of people there. He probably didn’t know because we shook hands and said, “Come on in.” And I said, “Well Sir, I’m here on an important thing if you’d give me two minutes of your time.” He said, “What’s all this about?” and he knew I was from the Naval Academy and I told him that I knew this other guy from the Naval Academy and I told him that he wants to go into bombers and we would like to reverse it if you can. He said, “Come and see me at 8 o’clock Monday.” So I did. And I got 50 copies of this new change of assignments and that did the job.
Narration: Bob was an experienced pilot and flew virtually every aircraft in the Air Force’s inventory. He encountered many close calls and challenges during flight and was known for successfully navigating them.
BG: One time I got up, I pulled up and went way high like that and then stalled out and I had to get it out of a spin.
SJ: Oh, it went into a spin in a T-33?
SJ: Yeah. Ok. (laughs)
BG: I wasn’t planning on all of that!
SJ: So you’re in the Air Force. Did you move to operational airplanes at that point?
BG: And I put in for I and Jimmy Hartinger. We were big buddies in flight school. And he had put in for Fürstenfeldbruck which was north west of Munich, Germany. The other base was on the south side of Munich, Germany, so I got assigned to one and he got assigned to the other.
SJ: So what did you fly in Germany?
BG: I flew the P-47, a tailwheel with a four bladed prop.
SJ: What year was this?
BG: We got there in June of 1950.
SJ: So about 5 years after the war at that point.
SJ: So you’re flying P-47s and do you finally get jets?
BG: Oh right away! In fact I made a comment. I said, “What’s this hunk of junk?” talking about that because I had already flown jets. By the way, I went to the Pentagon and I went into this guy’s office and the lady tried to prevent me from going to the Pentagon where I had never been before and so I talked to him and I said, “I’d like to see if you could get me to be based in the Gulf of Mexico south of the Pentagon.” And so I got assigned there and it was close to Memphis and I did get a chance to go back and forth from Memphis a little bit.
SJ: To visit family?
SJ: After you finish flying down on the Gulf you moved up to Knoxville?
BG: My dad he called me up when I was down there in the Gulf of Mexico and says, “I’d like you to come up here and you can join the Air National Guard and help me and my work.” And so I took him up on this and called the Guard and they said, “Hell yeah! We’d like have you in the Memphis Guard.” So I was in the Guard in Memphis and then got in the Guard in Knoxville. And when I got the Guard in Knoxville I flew this airplane here.
Narration: Steve mentioned how Bob came to this interview equipped with his books and memorabilia. Bob was pointing to a photo of the F-104 Starfighter.
SJ: So this is where you flew the F-104 for the first time.
BG: Yeah, and that’s the one that let me get hired by Lockheed.
SJ: Was the 104 an exciting airplane to fly?
BG: Very much so! It was terrific! It was faster than any of the other airplanes.
SJ: How fast did you go in an F-104?
BG: Oh this thing will go Mach 2.
SJ: Did you ever go Mach 2?
BG: Constantly! It was always because of that thing that I got in with Kelly Johnson. He designed it.
SJ: So tell people what it’s like to fly an F-104.
BG: Well one thing about it you’ve got a nose wheel and tires and you got an afterburner, and so if you put on the afterburner and you don’t let the thing roll ahead it could blow a tire.
SJ: So you had to be very careful about using breaks.
BG: Yeah. Exactly. You go burner and you better have everything free to accelerate.
Narration: Lou Schalk was the chief test pilot of Skunk Works® at the time and he recruited Bob to join Lockheed.
BG: And we were in Downtown Burbank and he says, “How would you like to come over here with me?” And so I said, “Ok. Tell me about it.” He says, “I can’t.” I said, “How do I know I would like coming over there with you?” He says, “You don’t.” So that was the conversation we had. It was a beautiful day while we were driving.
SJ: Why did you decide to take him up if you didn’t know about it?
BG: I guess I knew they were doing something secret and good so that’s why I assumed that would be the case. So Kelly Johnson called me over to his office. He knew I was flying this…
Narration: Once again, that tap is Bob pointing to a picture of the F-104.
BG: So he said, “I’ve got something that flies higher than this, flies further than this,” and so then he stands up and it was just me and him in his office and he said, “Now let’s go and take a look at it.” And so that was his secret one that we hadn’t flown yet.
SJ: This was the A-12 Oxcart, the CIA [aircraft]?
BG: Yes. Only fighter pilots could fly that.
SJ: Ok. So Kelly walks you over to this hanger and you walk in…
BG: Yeah. And I could tell it was high and fast and heavy.
SJ: What did you see when you walked through the door?
BG: Nothing. They didn’t have any black stuff on it. It was 94% titanium. That’s what I could see on the first time I looked at it.
SJ: So was it still being built when you saw it?
BG: Yeah. This thing was under construction. Oh and then after that, since it wasn’t ready, Kelly told me to come on over in two weeks. And I said “Well, Levier wants me to go over to Europe again and fly for the Germans and the Italians.” And so then Kelly says, “Well, we don’t have anything ready to fly yet and it’ll be a while, so you might as well go over there again and do that.” So I did and I went briefly to Germany and then I went to Italy and so I finished up with those guys. I got back on a Sunday and I met with Kelly. We would always meet at 7 o’clock on Mondays and the very next day I got a subsonic flight in a secret area.
SJ: So the very first flight in a Blackbird you did was with one of these CIA A-12s?
Narration: Lou Schalk, who recruited Bob, was the first pilot to fly the A-12 Oxcart, a single seat aircraft operated by the CIA and the precursor to the SR-71. Bob became one of the A-12 test pilots.
SJ: Ok. So you fly the A-12 the first time. Was it still kind of in its natural metal color or had it been painted black yet?
BG: Oh no. They didn’t have anything painted black yet. That happened later. One thing I forgot to mention that we had a different engine at first too.
SJ: Yeah. You actually had the Pratt & Whitney J75s inside that.
BG: Yeah, exactly. And so when you’d get the thing you’d accelerate on out and climb and then that’s when we’d blow engines all the time. In the beginning we would blow very frequently before we moved out of the J75s we would be able to go beyond the 3.2 Mach.
SJ: When you say blow an engine, the engine wouldn’t blow up?
BG: It wouldn’t destroy the engine. They could go back and fix it but it would blow up as far as you were concerned.
Narration: Bob is describing an engine unstart, where the compressor of a supersonic aircraft’s engine suddenly stalls. Steve describes what a pilot would experience during an unstart.
SJ: One engine stops. At that point as I remember, the Blackbird has when it’s at cruise has around 15,000 pounds of drag on it. Basic drag. And when you get an inlet unstart it’s about 7,000 pounds of drag that shows up on one side of the airplane, extra, all of a sudden. So the drag goes up by 50% on one side of the airplane causing the airplane to yaw violently to one side. The airplane would hit the pilot in the helmet on the side that the engine was still good. That’s how he knew which engine was good.
SJ: When the inlet would unstart and you would try to restart it…
BG: Generally they would restart it once you slowed down.
SJ: It would restart? Do you have any idea how many unstarts you experienced?
BG: No, I don’t.
BG: Yeah. It was part of the program.
SJ: Every flight?
BG: Yeah. There was pretty much an unstart on every flight.
Narration: All experimental aircraft require incremental test flights to slowly expand the operational capability of the aircraft. Every test pilot uses test cards to make sure they hit every test point. Bob flew A-12 speed runs which required he fly up toward Canada and down the Pacific Coastline. The A-12 could reach speeds as high as Mach 3.2. At this speed the turn radius is the size of a western state.
BG: We would take off and go north and so if everything was going good we would let it bag it up to a 30 degree angle and start swinging it up so you wouldn’t enter Canada. That was a no-no. Everything went really good.
Robert Gilliland: Although it would have been tempting for my father to see if he could just go a little faster…
Narration: This is Robert Gilliland, Bob Gilliland’s son. You’ll hear more from Robert throughout this episode.
RG: …he stayed exactly within the flight profile and obviously that would be confirmed by the instrumentation on the plane. And I think that that’s a trait that Kelly liked. That if he set a profile on a flight that he wanted it followed to the “T”, he didn’t want any deviations. It was too much at risk. That is the discipline that would be necessary, you know, to be a successful test pilot as well.
BG: I remember when I was way high and I flamed out that I would try one engine and look and it wouldn’t light. Then I’d bring it back and then I try the other engine. Then I kept going down and then pretty soon it was both engines. I couldn’t get a light out of any of them. In the past you would do like that and light it up and everything was normal again.
SJ: Were you going supersonic?
BG: Oh good god yes! I wouldn't be up that high if I weren’t!
SJ: Who was the chase pilot in the 104 that was following you?
BG: Oh that was Bill Skliar.
RG: And he was on his tail and as he was losing altitude and dad kept trying to get it relit, relit, and he couldn’t get it relit. And he was talking to the tower and he said…
BG: I said this looks bad. And I knew they had 30 knots on the ground too.
RG: Right. So as his nose is coming down and Skliar is going right down with him and Dad, every time he would try to get a relight he’d hit the throttle and it would flame out and finally he got one of the engines lit and just enough to get some power going and Bill Skliar…
BG: He was up under me and he said, “It looks like it’s lit now”. And so then I thought, “If I move my stick I could flame out again.” So I went and did a landing out of that deal where I was afraid to move the throttle. And so I landed downwind which was already a high wind. And then touched down I thought I better pick it up like this and slow down a bit, but I got back ok. That was a very close call because Skliar helped me a lot.
SJ: Is that the closest you’ve had to come to ejecting from an airplane?
BG: I’ll say I can’t remember having one closer.
RG: Dad, when he was doing the 104 flight tests, he had five dead stick landings in an F-104 that was another reason Kelly selected Dad for the SR-71 program as well. Because he brought them back.
BG: I had five dead stick landings in this thing. Where the engines quit and you can’t get a restart so you decide to land it instead of eject. But it’d been much safer ejecting on these things.
SJ: Why did you make the decision to try to land?
BG: Because I was flying the damn thing at first seven days a week and on the weekend I could practice a lot. As I got better at it, I had more confidence in it.
SJ: So you felt better trying to land it?
BG: Yeah and I did it too! Five of them. I don’t know anybody that did that many.
Narration: Kelly quickly heard about Bob’s successful dead stick landings from Tony Levier and wanted him to be a test pilot for the SR-71 program.
SJ: You’re one of the few people around that actually worked closely with Kelly and knew Kelly. What was Kelly like?
BG: For one thing he’s paranoid about security.
SJ: Security was very important to him.
SJ: What was he like as a person? Was he smart?
BG: Oh yeah. When he was 27 years old that’s when he designed that other airplane during World War II that went from Burma to Berlin more than halfway around the world. He was only 27 when he did that one.
SJ: Kelly picked you to be the test pilot for the SR-71, right?
BG: Yes, the first flight on that was December 22, 1964. Naturally I would have hoped it would be me.
SJ: Because your job as a test pilot, you took risks.
BG: Sure. It’s part of the job.
SJ: Were you ever afraid to fly?
BG: No, never.
RG: I’ve asked him before, what’s the difference between a test pilot and a regular pilot? And he said, “Well the difference is that most pilots don’t incur emergencies on a consistent basis. Test pilots have to make life or death decisions constantly. You know, one of the things about the SR-71 program that my father did not know on the first flight that it was a milestone program, that is the Department of Defense was going to pay Lockheed a bonus if they could get the first flight of the Blackbird, the SR-71, before January 1 of that upcoming year. It was about month or so before the first flight and Kelly Johnson came up to my father and asked him, “How do you feel about going wheels up on the first flight?” One thing that my father was very good at was that he would always want to talk to the engineers, the different engineers that were involved in the different aspects of the airplane’s design and development, so that he could get a good understanding of what the airplane could and couldn’t do and understanding all the mechanisms and the workings of the aircraft. But he felt very confident in the ejection system so he told Kelly, “I’m fine either way.” And in this case, the SR-71, if the airplane’s landing gear did not retract as needed, then the pilot would have to eject. There’s no bellying in this airplane. And then you lose your prototype aircraft, you’ve lost millions of dollars, and you’ve set the program back years. So when Dad said, “Sure! I’m fine with it.” Kelly said, “Well hmmm… Let me think about it and let me get back to you.” And about a week or so before the first flight he said, “We’re going to go wheels up.” By going wheels up, Lockheed would get another bonus and if they went supersonic on the first flight they would get another bonus. And so before the first flight, they have a card and Kelly set forth the parameters of what the flight would entail and what would be accomplished on the first flight.
BG: So Kelly came up in his two engine Jet Star and then in this case we had three chase pilots. So I taxied out and parked and got in position and then we all rolled down the runway at the same time and took off and went up to about 25,000 feet.
Narration: Bob flew north up over Mammoth Lakes, California.
BG: So I got over the mountains, because even then it drops a sonic boom. So I went burner. Every time you go burner in this airplane one will hit but the other one won’t so you go like that and when you both got them you’d accelerate. So when I got up to around 1.8 Mach that’s when I got a problem.
Narration: A red light flashed on the instrument panel indicating the canopy was unsafe, so Bob pulled back the throttles and analyzed the problem. He turned to his right and left to determine if the canopy was secured properly. He determined that the air over the canopy was causing it to lift just slightly. A micro-switch triggered as if the canopy was raised during flight. He determined the switch was giving a false reading and that the canopy was indeed safe. He accelerated and ignored the flashing red light.
BG: So I came back and reduced it to minimum burner. And it slowed down from 1.8 down to .04. So I looked to see what the hell was causing that and then I went burner again. At first I thought,” Well this is the first flight and I think they’ve screwed up maybe the way they put the gauges. So I lowered it and I went all the way up to 1.5….
Narration: Robert told us that Bob later commented that if the canopy had in fact blown off, the engineers on the ground would have been very upset asking him, “Why do you think we put that big red light in front of your face?”
BG: ….and there was no problem. When I came back reduced power and Kelly says, “How is your fuel?” And I said, “Fuel’s fine sir.” Kelly said, “Well how about a fly by?” And he had a bunch of people on top of a building and so we just did a nice fly by. Then Kelly says, “How’s your fuel now? Says, “Fuel’s still good sir.” He says, “How about another fly by?” So we did another fly by like this. He had a couple generals there and they wanted one more fly by so we did that but then we had a malfunction and we started leaking fuel and it was leaking out big time so I came around and landed in a hurry. We were real happy that everything had gone good.
RG: When he did the last flyby with the SR-71 in front of Kelly as was requested with the generals, and it started dumping fuel it was a white stream coming out of the tail.
RG: And one of the generals nudged Kelly and asked, “What’s that?” and Kelly had the embarrassment to say, “Oh it’s just a minor little problem.” But he had later told Dad that, “I wish I hadn’t asked you to make that last flyby.”
RG: “Because it was a little embarrassing with the General nudging me like that.”
Narration: Robert, along with his mother and sister, was actually present for the first flight as well.
RG: My mother got a phone call from one of her friends who was married to one of the employees at Lockheed in the Skunk Works®. To inform her that the flight was going off today. My mom of course knew my dad was a test pilot and worked for Lockheed and she also knew that he was flying something very super secret that he wouldn’t talk about. My dad had told her that he was flying something that he couldn’t discuss but that it would be going off very soon. And so my dad in advance previously told my mom that if she’s able to come out and watch the first flight, this is where I want you to park. So on that morning my mom got the call and she drove over quickly to where the flight was to take place in Palmdale and parked where my dad had indicated. And I was there and my older sister Ann. And so I was just a little guy at the time, I was only 2 years old, my sister was 4 years old. But what happened was when Dad, he rolled out to the end of the runway and then just sat there, there was a 104 behind him just idling and 2 104s were just circling overhead waiting for the rollout down the runway. And when he came overhead at least by the side where we had parked, my mom had recounted to me that my sister and I immediately were just terrified of the loud engines. I think we were both probably in tears at that time and when he came screaming overhead and my mom was there and she said the tears were just rolling off her face. Willing the plane off the ground so to speak. And you know, Dad disappeared off into the horizon.
Narration: Bob received a signed photo from Kelly for successfully completing the first flight.
BG: He put down in the lower right hand corner “To Bob Gilliland. Thanks for a fine first flight.” And then he signed it. I showed that to Tony Levier and he says, “Hell, I made several, a bunch of first flights for Kelly Johnson and he never wrote anything like that for me.” (laughs)
RG: At one point we lived in La Canada Flintridge which is down the hill over from, you have to go over the Angeles Crest Highway, it’s about a 45 minute drive and then you drop into Palmdale where Dad would have to have those 7 a.m. meetings, bright and early. And so he had this Mustang and it was very, it was a new Mustang, very fast and he’d go zipping around over the hill and down into Palmdale to make sure he wasn’t late for Kelly because he said, “Whatever you did, you didn’t want to be late for a Kelly Johnson meeting that’s for sure.” But I remember one day I was sitting in his car and I was in the passenger seat and I punched the glove box open and all these yellow tickets came flying out and I realized at that point when you fly at Mach 3.2 in the world’s highest and fastest airplane it takes a little getting used to go slow again when you’re in your car.
SJ: How did the name Dutch 51 come to be?
BG: That was from the Pentagon. They told you what your code number would be.
RG: Each of the pilots all got, you know, all of their call signs were ‘Dutch’ and it was either 51, 52, 53, or whatever. The irony I think is funny is that that Dad’s call sign was Dutch 51 and he flew out of Area 51.
RG: He got a lot of questions asking if that was intentional, but I think it was really random that he just ended up with Dutch 51.
SJ: What did it feel like to be able to talk to people about the Blackbird for the first time out in public. Do you remember doing that?
BG: I would be careful who I, I was used to doing things that were secret. So I just would just keep it a secret as far as I was concerned.
RG: When you’re younger you don’t tend to appreciate the accomplishments of your parents. I knew he flew this black airplane that was really fast and I just thought it was normal. And all the friends that would come over to the house when I was a kid were astronaut and test pilots. So it seemed very normal to me. This is just his job, this is just what he does and there wasn’t anything super amazing about it. Although I do remember one occasion when I was at one of my friend’s homes and we somehow got on the subject of my father, talking about how he flies, and that he flies this black airplane that goes so fast that he can fly faster than a 30-06 bullet. And I remember the parent looking at me like smiling you know with this kind of look like. “Oh isn’t that, what a creative imagination he must have.”
RG: But I just growing up in kind of this shadowy world it was very different, very interesting. And as I got older I got to appreciate it more. Although he did all these amazing things and flew in the world’s highest and fastest airplane, nobody knew about it because it was top secret it was not to be spoken not to be discussed. So he really didn’t attain fame or recognition for what he has done until much later in his life.
RG: It’s very kind of strange in the way that he’s my father and yet I see this American aviation icon. But I look at him as he’s just my dad. He’s just my father that was I think in the right place at the right time, who happened to have all the skills necessary to accomplish the job.
SJ: Is there an airplane that you didn’t get to fly that you would have liked to have flown?
BG: Well I’m sure in mat earlier day I would have taken up a bunch of them if I could of.
SJ: What kind of airplanes did you want to fly? Fighters?
BG: Oh yeah. The fighters! The world’s best.
SJ: The world’s best.
BG: Yeah, but you don’t see anybody, you don’t see those at 85,000 feet. There was nothing comparable that could go 3.2, that’s the maximum speed of the airplane and when you’re going that fast you’re going fast at 85,000 feet going big time.
SJ: What was the view looking out the windows of the Blackbird? I know you didn’t look out much.
BG: Well I was all enthralled with flying the airplane. You know I like doing that. I was doing what I wanted to do. After all, that’s why I left Tennessee and I went all the way over to Lockheed in the first place.
SJ: Let me ask you this. You and I have talked about this before but, you are forever tied to history. When you reflect on being the first person to fly the Blackbird and know that forever your name is going to be tied to that, what goes through your head? Are you humbled by it?
BG: Oh grateful I was in the position to do that. Still am.
SJ: Very proud of that?
BG: I just think I’m lucky to have done it and I would have done it the same way if I had it to do over.
Narration: Inside Skunk Works is produced in Palmdale California and Fort Worth Texas. We want to extend a thank you to Bob’s son, Robert Gilliland, and his family for making this episode possible. For a full transcription of this episode visit LockheedMartin.com/InsideSkunkWorks.
Behind the Epsiodes: Season 1
Episode 2: They Gave Him a Tent
Episode 3: Arrowhead
Ben Rich is pictured in the cockpit of the F-117 Nighthawk.
Ben was Kelly Johnson’s successor of the Skunk Works upon Kelly’s retirement.
Episode 4: Hat Trick
Episode 5: Not Today
Episode 6: Crashing is Success
“Throughout the Skunk Works history, there’s been this idea that we’re out there pushing boundaries and taking risks. We’re going to have setbacks and issues, but as long as we’re moving forward, it’s okay.”
- Mike Swanson, Skunk Works chief engineer
Episode 7: It Changes Everything
“If you’ve ever heard a traditional sonic boom, it’s very disturbing and very annoying. The new sound level sounds more like a supersonic heart beat.”
Photo courtesy of NASA
“The initial recognition that the shaping of an airplane can effect the noise on the ground occurred quite a while back, but it wasn’t until recently that we were able to demonstrate that we could develop a design and predict the noise of that design to move forward with a full-scale demonstrator.”
-Peter Iosifidis, Lockheed Martin X-59 Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator Program Manager
Photo courtesy of NASA
“We know how to build airplanes and we know how to build X-planes. The technical hurdles of this project are behind us. Now we just need to get on with building this airplane and providing it to NASA so we can all fly on a supersonic airplane one day.”
Artwork by David Bartos
“There’s a lot of steps to go, but the ultimate product of this is a database of community responses. This database is what we need to effect regulatory change. That would open the door for industry to step through and take advantage of this system.”
-Craig Nickol, NASA X-59 Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator Program Manager