Santa Clarita / Antelope Valley : Pilot Recalls Blackbird’s 1st Flight : Aviation: Hundreds honor 30th anniversary of the historic event over Palmdale. The airplane will be revived in new defense budget.


In his mind’s eye, Robert Gilliland can still see the sky above Palmdale that day 30 years ago, clear but for one little cloud.

He remembers too that he was only slightly nervous. After all, he had flown fighter jets during the Korean War and was a test pilot for years before he ever sat in the cockpit of this new plane, a Blackbird.

If worse came to worst, he would simply eject and parachute to safety.

So on Dec. 22, 1964, Gilliland was alone in an SR-71 Blackbird and piloted the then-secret plane on its maiden flight, which began and ended at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale and saw Gilliland pilot the craft at 1 1/2 times the speed of sound.


“I’m lucky to be here, lucky to be alive,” he said.

On Sunday, hundreds of people converged on Blackbird Airpark at Plant 42 to mark the 30th anniversary of the first flight of the SR-71 and another, lesser known reconnaissance craft, the M-21/D-21 combination, built by Lockheed.

“We’re doing it for pilots, crew members, people associated with the program,” Blackbird Airpark Manager Doug Nelson said of the celebration. “The only time they get any recognition is among themselves.”

“The SR-71’s an amazing airplane,” said Greg Welsh, a Burbank resident who was visiting Blackbird Airpark for the first time Sunday.

For more than 20 years, the SR-71 gathered “vital intelligence information,” said Tom Pugh, a retired Air Force colonel who lives in the Antelope Valley.

“The information they provided was used by our national authorities to develop the Cold War strategy,” he said. “The airplane and its capability was a very significant contributor to ending the Cold War.”

In 1990, the Blackbird was retired, a move Gilliland at the time called an “egregious error.” But the 1995 defense bill provides $100 million to revive the program and return three of the planes to the Air Force’s operational fleet.


Lt. Col. Pete Drinkwater, commander of Plant 42, said Lockheed will begin next month to prepare three SR-71s for a return to service. The Air Force, he said, will use them for reconnaissance work as well as research and development.

Sherm Mullin, who recently retired as president of Lockheed Advanced Development Co., said the SR-71 remains the “highest performance airplane in the history of the world.”

“It still holds three of the most important absolute records in aviation history,” he said. The Blackbird holds an altitude record of 85,069 feet and speed records on closed and open courses that exceed 2,000 mph.

The D-21, on the other hand, holds no such records. It was an unmanned, disposable drone designed to gather reconnaissance information after being released at a high speed and high altitude by another aircraft, Nelson said.

The secret program, he said, was canceled after a fatal mishap during one of the test launches: The drone crashed into the mother ship just after release and one of the two crewmen was killed.

Later, the D-21 was reconfigured to be dropped from a B-52 bomber, but even then it was not widely used before the program was abandoned in 1970, Pugh said.