Commemorative Air Force Headquarters

Brian Shul USAF

Dinner Speaker for January 22, 2004

Fighter Pilot; Author; Photographer; Dynamic Speaker

* Born in Quantico, VA., 1948
* Began Flight Training, 1970, USAF, Reese AFB, TX
* 212 Combat Missions, VietNam Theater; Associated With AIR AMERICA
* Shot Down Near Cambodian Border; Unable to Eject; Crash Landed in Jungle
* Fireball; Badly Burned & Near Death; Crawled Away; Rescued by Special Forces
* Barely Survived Intensive Care 2 Months; 15 Major Operations
* Told Would Never Fly Again; Lucky to be Alive
* Long Physical Therapy; Passed Flight Exam; Returned to Active Duty, Jets
* Flew A-7D, A-10; On the First Air Show Demonstration Team for A-10s
* After Numerous Assignments, Volunteered & Qualified (Astronaut-type)for SR-71
* Amazing Comeback From Near Death in SE Asia, to 5000 hours in Jets; 20 Years

Sled Driver
SR-71 Pilot With an Extraordinary Story and Pictures to Match

"I'm very lucky, very happy to be here. My greatest claim is that I'm here at all, I'm still standing. The real heroes were the people who didn't come back. Or, like the people who rescued me - - the guys who risked their lives to get that one downed aviator out of there."

Brian Shul tells people he's thirty years old, because thirty years have passed since he was nearly killed in a crash in Southeast Asia. Those three decades have re-defined a pilot who is passionate about sharing the experiences he has had flying one of the world's most extraordinary  aircraft, the SR-71 Blackbird. And the Golden Gate Wing had the fortune to hear his story, complete with Brian's slides,  in January, 2004.

Shul flew 212 combat missions during the Vietnam War, as a Foreign Air Advisor. On that 212th mission, his AT-28 was shot down near the border of Cambodia, and he was forced to crash land in the jungle. Brian survived the crash but was severely burned before he could crawl free of the flaming wreckage.

"I realized that, in fact, I hadn't died, and was sitting in a burning cockpit. At which time I set a world's record for egress in an airplane."

Special Forces troops found Shul, and carried him from the wreck to a clearing. He was extracted by helicopter within two hours of going down, and evacuated to a military hospital on Okinawa. Brian's burns were so bad, he was expected to die. 

Two months of intensive care led, in 1974, to the first of what would be fifteen major operations at the Institute of Surgical Research at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.  Shul was told he would never fly again and that he was lucky to be alive. 

"You think about a lot things when you're laying on your back in a hospital. You think about things you're not doing, and you become very aware  of what's really important in life and what's not."

Physical therapy gave Brian a path back to his true passion - - not only to regain a normally functioning body, but to pass his flight physical - - enabling his return to active flying duty. He soon flew the A-7D, was in the first A-10 Thunderbolt squadron, and instructed in the F-5 Freedom Fighter at the Air Force's Top Gun School. Brian's experiences prepared him to become the motivational speaker he is today. And tops among the messages he delivers is that of the importance of persistence.

"Every time you want to do something in life and people say ‘no', it just means you're asking the wrong person. And you just have to go around that person and find somebody to really do it. Perseverance does pay off! "

Shul passed the astronaut physical on his first attempt, without waivers, on his way to qualifying to fly the SR-71.

Although the SR-71 Blackbird was an Air Force asset, the aircraft was a prime reconnaissance tool for the US Army and Navy. While the former organization gathered information on Soviet battalions, the latter was able to keep tabs on submerged nuclear submarines. It was used by many other intelligence agencies as well.

Shul says the electronic tools onboard the Blackboard were amazing, ranging from radar imaging and infra-red mapping to ultra-sensitive listening capabilities.

  "It could do things that were so cosmic, they didn't  even fully brief us on some of the sensors, in case we were shot down and captured. And I thought, ‘Well, there's a real great plan. I'm sure the other side's going to believe me when I say they didn't tell me how that works. I don't know."

Shul writes and speaks of the Blackbird's power, so great that the plane could only run one engine up to ‘mil power'  at a time. Among his descriptions of the plane is "a tiger on a leash, that just wanted to rip right off the leash and run".

"The sound was so incredible. If you never heard an SR-71 take off, your life's incomplete."

Flying the Blackbird was a unique experience, given the absence of most normal flying control surfaces - - no flaps, no slats, no speedbrake. And, the SR-71 was all-weather, without any anti-icing devices externally, nor crew heating internally.

"It didn't have to  have heating devices, because the airplane heated up to about  865 degrees (F) around the cockpit in flight, Mach 3. When you're doing 2000 miles an hour, it gets hot. Back near the engine nacelles, it'd be closer to 1,000 degrees."

Crews of the SR-71 breathed 100-percent oxygen to de-nitrogenate their bodies, avoiding bends when returning from the high altitude missions. An astronaut spacesuit controlled the pilot's and navigator's personal atmosphere. Diet needed to be controlled, likewise, to avoid gastrointestinal discomfort in the aircraft's thin operational atmosphere.

Shul notes that every time a Blackbird was photographed on the ground, there'd be the "mandatory" puddle of fuel under the fuselage, a product of the expansion joints designed into the airplane. High temperatures at speed expanded the titanium airframe by three to four inches, and without the capacity to expand, fuel tanks ruptured.  The JP-7 fuel was not a hazard due to its low flashpoint - - Shul says you could douse a match in it.


"From brake release to 26,000 feet, leveling at 400 knots, is 3 minutes, 52 seconds. I think that's about three days in a Cessna."

The SR-71 was mostly made of titanium, requiring special technology to craft each airplane by hand. Shul says that gave each Blackbird a special personality.

"The jet would talk to you all the time, and it would impress you all the time. And she was a jealous airplane. If she thought you were trying to take a picture or do something else, or look away, some magic light would come on. And you'd come down and land and they'd say, ‘We can't duplicate that. That light should not have come on. Are you sure that light  came on?' "

"And we'd say, ‘Oh yeah, that light came on. Just to keep us honest.'"

Brian says he never tired of taking pictures of the sleek high-flier. And his devotion to capturing on film so many of his experiences has given him the world's largest collection of SR-71 photographs.


Flying that large an airplane, that fast, burned fuel and required refueling two to five times a mission, at 15 minutes each refueling, if everything went right.

KC-135 tankers fly at 305 knots, as Shul says, "If you're lucky".  The gross weight of the Blackbird would grow by 65,000 pounds, pushing the center of gravity back. Brian says at that weight, moving at only 290 knots, the SR-71 would fall out of the sky.

"You'd have to tap one afterburner to stay on the boom as you got full. So you're flying sideways with one burner lit, modulating  thrust with the other one, when the airplane is getting pretty close to gross at 80,000 pounds of gas. It's not a fun thing."

Full of fuel, it took a little time to regain the speed for which the Blackbird was known.

"All you had to do was get her rolling downhill just a little bit, and she just loved it.  As soon as she got past the Mach, she started doing things with the spikes and the inlet system - -  she started moving the spikes aft and the doors started breathing, and things started happening that are all magical. She liked it better at 2.4 Mach better than at One. Next thing you know, going through Mach Two, the jet said just hold on for the ride now. Don't try to slow me down anytime real soon.

"Passing through about 55,000 feet the sky turns a very deep cobalt blue. It's an absolutely gorgeous sight. Most pilots never get to enjoy that kind of altitude. We just ripped right through it en route to leveling off."

At altitude

Shul says at 78,000 feet, the earth below begins looking like satellite weather images you see on television. On missions over the Arctic circle, Brian says sometimes he would see MiG-25  contrails frozen in the sky below.

"They'd get puffy and then they'd get all squiggly and they'd fall out of the sky about 68,000 feet, out of gas and out of ideas. And you'd  be sitting there in your ‘57 Chevy, blowing the doors off a 1986 MiG, saying, ‘This is an incredible piece of machinery.'

The kinds of reconnaissance missions varied for Brian and Walter Watson (Shul's ‘backseater'). One example, clearly standing out for Shul, involved gathering information about Soviet antiaircraft missiles.

"The planners came in one day and said, ‘The Soviets have just developed a new missile, an SA-10 or something.  And they said it could be a real threat to our fighter community, and we don't know a lot about it. But they've deployed it by their submarine and missile bases in the Arctic circle, so here's what we're going to do.'

" ‘We want you to point the SR-71 ninety degrees to the coast and impersonate like you're going to penetrate their border. But at the last minute, don't. All the missile sites will  come up. We'll record all the data. But at the last minute, then, just turn.'

Shul says he and Walter pressed for a few answers, such as what might happen if the Soviets actually fired the new missile. Despite any feelings of vulnerability, they moved forward with the mission.

"We went up to this area and pointed our nose right to the Soviet border and the missile sites came up. Walter's recording all this data and I'm holding my breath in the front seat. Now when you say turn at the last minute in this airplane... it takes three states to turn the airplane at that speed.  We made our turn and as we did, they didn't shoot at us that day. We  got tons of great data."

"Six or eight years later, during the Gulf War, every fighter pilot was armed with all of that data, how to jam those missiles that had been deployed all around the world."

Brian says the other memory from that mission indelibly stamped in his mind were two sunrises and a pair of frozen contrails, blood red due to the low angle of the sun at the polar cap. That's an image Brian wishes he'd been able to capture on film.

  Thanks to photography, the world has been able to share the SR-71's back seat with Walter, as Brian carried a camera with him on as many missions as possible.

"Sometimes the jet would reward you with an incredible view... sunrise over Iceland... skipping across Canada at night we saw the Northern Lights at three in the morning..."

Ground Speed -  A Classic Tale

When Brian was flying his final training flight in the SR-71, he had an experience which, in its telling, has become a classic of aviation folklore.

"You had to get 100 hours in the airplane before they'd let you go fly the real missions. That's a year of training in this airplane. It's one of those just-perfect flights where you're thinking,'Okay, I've got this down now. I'm ready.'

"And then I'm feeling sorry for Walter in the back seat. Because Walter has to manage five radios back there. Now this was a hard thing for me to give up control of the radios. Those of you who were single seat fighter pilots know that you like to talk on your own radio, because it's very important that fighter pilots sound good on the radio. You've gotta be John Wayne or Chuck Yeager.

Shul says he'd finally gotten used to Walter handling communications, but only after "training him the right way".

On this final training flight in the SR-71,  Brian and Walter were listening to the Los Angeles air traffic control center handle a variety of air traffic.

"Those center guys have their own little etiquette. They want to sound like Gene Krantz at Apollo 13... They have to have their warm, in-the- womb, fuzzy voice - -' Turn right. One, two, zero degrees.'

"And if they don't talk like that, they don't feel cool. And we love that as pilots, because when you're in a thunderstorm over Tinker at Oklahoma City in your A-7, and you're out of gas and wetting your pants, and you're just screaming, ‘My God, I don't even know where I am.' And the guy says, ‘Runway. One, two, zero degrees. Five miles. We have radar contact...'  - - Oh God, you love that voice!"

Air traffic controllers are consistent with their voice, no matter the type of aircraft calling in, no matter a Cessna driver or a space shuttle captain. So, Brian and Walter were monitoring LA center when a Cessna pilot called in, requesting a ground speed readout.

Shul says the tower replied,"Uh Roger, Cessna. We show you at 90 knots on the ground. And right after that a Twin Beech comes up. You could tell it was just some fat golfer guy with a lot of money. And he says, ‘This is Twin Bonanza... what's our ground speed?'

"Tower responds, ‘Uh Roger, Twin Beech. We show you 120 on the ground.'

"And right after that a Navy F-18 out of Lemoore pops up on the frequency. You knew it was a Navy guy because he talked very cool  on the radio, ‘Center, Dusty Five Two speed check.'

"And I'm thinking, Waaiiitt a minute, here. Dusty Five Two has a ground speed indicator in that 18 million dollar cockpit. Why is he asking center to broadcast his groundspeed?  Ohhhh, I get it... he's just the meanest, baddest, fastest dude in the valley. Oh that little Hornet jet is just whipping across Mt. Whitney and we want everyone from Fresno to the coast to know what real  speed is."

"'Uh, Roger, Dusty Five Two. We show you 620 on the ground.'

   "And I'm thinking, ‘Is this is ripe situation, or what? It's the Navy, and they must die, and die now.'  But as my hand is reaching for the mic button, I tragically remember that Walter - - navigator, engineer, no-sense-of-humor-Walter - -  is in charge of the radio. I think, ‘No. I must override him. It's my duty.  I'm the aircraft commander and I can do this. But if I do, Walter's not going to understand that very well and he's going to cry. You know how sensitive those navigator guys are. And all that training will go down the drain, and I want us to be a good crew.'

Right then, Brian said he heard the little click of the mic button in the back seat, "At that moment, Walter and I became a crew. And, best friends, let me add. For life!"

"I calmly removed my hand, as Walter in his very best, innocent, Cessna voice said,‘Center, Aspen Two Zero. Got a ground speed readout for us?'

" ‘Uh Roger, Aspen Two Zero. We show you 1,982 knots.

Brian says Walter made the move which proved they'd be close friends for a long time when he came back on the radio with, ‘Center, thanks anyway. We're showing a little closer to 2000.'

"For the first time in my 20-year career I heard Center break their little traditional voice and say, ‘Uh Roger that, guys. Your equipment is a little better than ours.'

Brian Shul flew the SR-71 Blackbird for four years, and with his backseater Walter Watson, provided key post-strike reconnaissance during the 1986 Libyan Crisis, flying the Blackbird an unprecedented three consecutive days over Khaddafi's terrorist training facilities.

Today, Brian continues to share his experiences with a wide range of audiences, in addition to writing about new experiences, enjoying photography and backpacking in the high country of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

When Brian retired from the Air Force in 1990, he began pursuing his writing and photographic interests. He was the first SR-71 pilot ever to write a book about flying that plane. Entitled Sled Driver, the book won 2 major awards for excellence from the Writer's Foundation of America and became the most popular SR-71 book of all time. He has since written four more aviation books, for which he does all the flying, writing, and photography.  He is now the only man in America to have flown extensively with both the Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels in the making of a special book on each of those world-reknowned aerobatic teams.

To commemorate the Centennial of Flight year of 2003, Brian Shul released a special Limited Edition of the original Sled Driver. 

This gold-edged collector's edition has been completely re-written with new stories and photographs added, and each of the 3500 numbered copies are hand-signed by four prominent crew members - - Brian and Walter Watson; Robert Gilliland, the pilot who flew the SR-71 first; and Ed Yeilding, the pilot who made the final flight of the SR-71, a 67-minute speed run across the United States. This definitive photo essay on the remarkable SR-71 comes with a certificate of authenticity and commemorative patch. It is being hailed as Aviation Book of the Year.  Also, Brian has saved Sled Driver book number 911 for President George W. Bush, and will present it personally to him.

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