Ret. Lt. Col. Gary "Gil" Luloff said he grew up on a farm in Independence, Iowa, driving on dirt roads from an early age. The dirt contrails left by his car would not be matched, he said until he was strapped into the long, black supersonic spy plane known as the SR-71 "Blackbird." Actually faster than a bullet, the SR-71 is known to go up to mach 3.3+ and the fastest known average speed of the SR-71 was clocked on July, 28, 1976, by Capt. Eldon W. Joersz and Maj. George T. Morgan at an Average Speed of 2,193.167 miles per hour. From 1973 to 1999 Luloff served in the Air Force flying the T-38 "Talon", F-106 "Delta Dart" and SR-71 jets. Luloff said his fascination with planes began after church services on Sundays.
"After church," Luloff said, "when we did not go to someone's house I would get to choose where we would go for dinner. And I don't know why, but I would always choose to go to the airport. I just had a fascination with airplanes. Growing up on a farm driving at a young age and operating machinery were a natural fit for me. During my junior year of high school I applied for an ROTC scholarship and after passing a physical was accepted. I went to Coe College, Cedar Rapids, on a four-year ROTC Scholarship and was the first to do so. I was also the first to lose it after the first semester because I had not been focused. I rebounded and was on the Dean's List the second semester and regained my scholarship."
Luloff graduated college in 1973, took some temporary jobs while he waited for his first assignment and got his notification he would be going to pilot training at Vance Air Force Base, Okla. After graduating he went on to become an instructor himself flying T-38 training aircraft. Because of his ability to quickly prepare aircraft for takeoff, Luloff was assigned to be part of an F-106 squadron based out of upper Michigan. The squadron and its alert detachment in Florida had to be ready at a moment's notice to intercept enemy aircraft. Routinely they would fly between Michigan and Florida and vice-versa.
"To me," Luloff said, "the F-106 was the Cadillac of jets because it was classically styled although archaic on the inside, but it was a wonderful plane to fly. We would fly from our position off of Lake Superior, Mich., and would fly to Panama City, Fla., nonstop clear across the country because we had enough fuel."
In 1981, Luloff applied and was accepted to be a pilot in the SR-71 Flight Squadron.
"I had my eyes set on the SR-71," Luloff said. "We had 10 crews of 20 people and it was important to get along. We spent a lot of time overseas in places like Japan and England because our area of interest was in between the two. When not flying we would be the buddy crew who prepped the plane for other crews as they could not do it. You do not preflight your own SR-71 because you are in a pressure suit and are put into it by hospital workers. It takes up to 45 minutes just to suit up. It was like the old space suits. When we were trying out they would put us in pressure suits to make sure we would not go nuts in them. Being closed up inside one is a little unnerving and claustrophobic. But once you get the engines cranked up and are off life support from ground sources and the plane is running off its own systems it is all the pilots now and away we went."
Luloff said his first flight was definitely an "oh-wow!" moment adding most people on the planet have not gone as fast as he and the other crews flying the SR-71's had gone. The previous jets Luloff flew he said were perfect lead-ins for him, but he said the SR-71 goes two machs beyond them. He added flying the plane was a lot like the simulations in that because they flew at such high altitudes, he felt like they were hanging in space with clouds and weather below them and darkness above. It was the clicking of a mile every two seconds which let them know how fast they were going.
In 1986, Luloff volunteered to be part of the staff at the reconnaissance headquarters at Offutt AFB, Omaha, Neb., and helped cut the cost of operating the SR-71's from $325 million dollars per year to $250 million per year in two years. In 1990, the Air Force cut the SR-71 program and Luloff stayed at Offutt AFB, working with the U-2 "Dragon Lady," its variation, the TR-1, and RC-135 spy planes. During that time Luloff was also smart in keeping the best resources of the SR-71 in storage and lent NASA an SR-71 trainer and two operational SR-71's.
In 1995, the SR-71 program was brought back and Luloff was one of a very few still in the Air Force who knew how to fly the jets. The program co-located and worked together with NASA out of Edwards AFB, California. In fact, Luloff's name is on two SR-71's which were featured in the movie "Armageddon" filmed at the base in California. Mid-air refueling was an obstacle to overcome, as all of the refueling pilots had no experience refueling an SR-71. After some time all the kinks were worked out however.
Some interesting notes Luloff mentioned about the SR-71 is that the plane did not use GPS, but rather a star tracker which looked remarkably like the "Star Wars" character "R2-D2" without feet. Because of the plane's speed, sometimes during missions they would see the sunrise multiple times in one flight.
Flying supersonic jets and flying in pressure suits can take a toll on one's body Luloff explains, "It is very rigorous. These are high performance planes. It is like the worst roller coaster you have ever been on, on steroids. You are talking about G-forces routinely in the fours and fives. Some get up into the sixes, sevens and eights. Just sitting still, everyone is at one G, at three or four you start losing peripheral vision, a G after that you lose color and you have a 'grayout' a G after that you have a 'blackout' and you cannot see because you have lost so much blood from your eyes, a G after this you lose consciousness and you cannot recover until the plane recovers. We have gotten to where the planes are much more capable of handling the G forces than those flying them. During this your arm which normally weighs 15 pounds, might weigh 90 pounds at six G's. You get to where you can work through that but you cannot pick up your legs without using your arms. The pressure suit is like being in an inner tube, but very hot. Pilots dehydrate a pound an hour. And when you can only take a pint of water due to the space, it has an effect on you. After the flight the mask you were wearing comes off and the oxygen releasing makes your eyes feel like someone threw sand in them. Because of the pressure you have to keep chewing or talking or the built up pressure in your ears will make your head feel like it is going to explode."
In 1999, Luloff retired as a Lt. Colonel. After conducting a nationwide search of places which met his criteria Luloff moved to Clarksburg in 2000. Since then Luloff has enjoyed spending time with his wife Gail, who is originally from Los Angeles, Calif., and traveling to see his daughter in Seattle, Wash., and Gail's daughter in Vancouver, Canada, along with living in their home in Florida. They have also taken several trips and cruises south of Cuba, where it is consistently warm according to Luloff. His hobbies include traveling and eating out. Currently he works for the State Treasurer's office but is looking forward to moving in the coming years to Georgia.
Originally, Luloff had planned on having a mini-airstrip and flying after retirement, but said he felt it safer to stay on the ground after his second stint with the SR-71's. For now he is just enjoying being blessed as much in retirement as he was in the service.
"It was a wonderful opportunity," Luloff said. "From a career standpoint, it was outstanding. It is not for everyone because I spent a lot of time away from home. Most of the time we were gone about half the time. In the F-106 we were gone 30-40 percent of the time. That is hard on families. But I would not trade it for anything else in the world. I would recommend it for the right person. You get shot at, but if you do not get killed retirement is kind of nice."