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Community: Grand marshals earned their wings

April 10, 2012|Joyce Rudolph
  • Burbank Boy Scout Troop 209 presented the colors during the opening of the City Council meeting on March 20. Leading the flag ceremony was Senior Patrol Leader Ryan Nakanishi. In the picture, back row from left, are Griffin Armstorff, Senior Patrol Leader Ryan Nakanishi, Mayor Jess Talamantes, Daniel Nakanishi, Assistant Senior Patrol Leader James Reedy; and front row, Evan Smith and Ryan Loney.
Burbank Boy Scout Troop 209 presented the colors during… (Photo by Cory Nakanishi )

Burbank on Parade pays homage to aviation when it marches down Olive Avenue beginning at 11 a.m. Saturday.

It's with luck that the parade committee has a link to former Lockheed test pilot Robert Gilliland, who will be sharing the title of grand marshal with United Airlines No. 1 pilot Clay Lacy. Gilliland, 85, was the original test pilot of the SR-71 Blackbird when it made its first flight in Palmdale on Dec. 22, 1964.

The Blackbird was designed by Kelly Johnson and was developed as a long-range strategic reconnaissance aircraft that could fly at speeds more than Mach 3.2 and as high as 85,000 feet. The first SR-71 began service in 1966 and the aircraft series was retired in 1990, with just a few kept in operation from 1995 to 1998.

In a phone interview, Gilliland explained that a reconnaissance mission is when an aircraft flies over enemy territory to capture images of military locations.

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“You have got to know where the enemy is and what he is doing,” Gilliland said. “The more you know about the enemy, the easier it is to defeat them.”

Kelly Johnson was the chief designer for Lockheed from the 1930s to the '70s.

“The Blackbird was the fastest plane to fly for Lockheed and anybody else around the world,” Gilliland said. “It could fly so high, the Russians or anybody else couldn't shoot it down.”

Gilliland's fighter pilot experience, he said, was the reason Johnson brought him on as the test pilot for the SR-71. Gilliland volunteered for a combat tour in Korea in 1952 flying the F-84 in a fighter-bomber unit at K-2 Airport, Taegu, Korea. He returned to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany in 1953 where he flew the F-86F Sabre Jet. Next he was assigned as a test fighter pilot at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and the U.S. Armament Center.

He left active service in 1954 and joined the Tennessee Air National Guard, where he flew the P-51, B-26, RF-80, RF-84 and the F-104A. In 1960 he joined Lockheed as a civilian test pilot flying the F-104 Starfighter. A model of that fighter is now displayed in front of Olive Recreation Center, next to the Gordon R. Howard Museum.

“The F-104 was chosen by London as the best fighting machine for the 20th century,” he said.

The engine was built by General Electric, he added, and all the major U.S. allies used it.

“I'm proud that the Italian air force flew the F-104 longer than any other country — 40 years,” he said.

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