Meet Brian Shul, the Air Force pilot who overcame adversity to fly the fastest plane on the planet

By Natasha McKenty | August 18, 2022

Estimated reading time 12 minutes, 4 seconds.

Retired U.S. Air Force (USAF) major Brian Shul travels North America known simply as the “sled driver” — a term that equates to supersonic speed, sensory overload, overcoming the impossible, and living life in the fast lane.

Coined a “sled” by the pilots who graced her controls, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird lives vicariously in every aviator’s mind; an Everest-sized pipedream — except for a lucky few. 

Shul flew the Blackbird for four years, supplying “photos of Libyan terrorist camps to President Reagan during the Libyan crisis.” Then, in 1986, he became the only SR-71 pilot to fly three missions in three consecutive days.

Today, as one of the most sought-after speakers in the United States, Shul has cultivated a knack for descriptive storytelling, recreating his narrative so that his audience walks away feeling like they, too, have been equipped to do and be anything they dream possible.  

Part of what makes the ex-fighter pilot’s narrative so engaging is that Shul admits there was a time when the motivation to stand on his own two feet escaped him.

Brian Shul obtained a spot in history as one of only 89 men to fly the SR-71 Blackbird. Photo courtesy of Brian Shul

“I quit, and I wanted to die,” he said. “So, I prayed and said, ‘Please God, I can’t do this anymore. Let’s end it.’”

Not a Hero

Shul will kill the term “hero” faster than the word can be spoken.

Equal to his accolades, his sense of humor and genuine authenticity wins over the audience. And, modest jokes aside, he admits that often he, too, finds himself amazed by his own life story, which unfolds like a well-executed novel – bursting at the seams with adventure, hardship, and life lessons.

“I didn’t speak in Canada for 25 years,” he admitted as he took to the stage at the 2022 Canadian Business Aviation Association Convention & Exhibition. “I have three [speaking engagements in Canada] this year. The hospitality couldn’t be better.”

A slideshow of photos accompanied his most personal experiences, emotions, and perceptions, taking the audience inside his hope-themed stories. 

“But I don’t want you to confuse me today with anyone famous, important, or heroic. What I am is the luckiest man you’ll ever see at a podium at any conference,” he proclaimed.

Shul, who spent two decades as a USAF fighter pilot, graduated from East Carolina University in 1970 with a degree in history and anthropology. And it wasn’t long after his grad cap was tossed in the air that he became airborne as a Foreign Air Advisor. 

His notoriety began as his luck faded, earning him a year-long stay in a military hospital burn unit after his North American T-28 Trojan was shot down during the Vietnam War. Unable to eject, Shul described dragging his wounded body in enemy territory to a hiding spot where he could safely camouflage. As with 18,000 other men who fought in that war, he expected to die. 

A rescue mission led Air Force Special Operations Command pararescue teams directly into hostile hands. And despite the unlikely success of the rescue mission, Shul was airlifted to a nearby American base, where he received treatment in intensive care at the Okinawa military hospital. 

Shul speaking at the 2022 Canadian Business Aviation Association Convention & Exhibition. CBAA Photo

Shul, who flew more than 210 combat missions before the end of the Vietnam War, was transferred to the Institute of Surgical Research at Fort Sam Houston, where his medical team predicted that he’d never fly again. 

He admitted that his life force drained as he endured over 15 reconstructive surgeries and countless hours of physiotherapy. 

“You can go days without water, your brain will even last a few minutes without oxygen, but the moment you lose hope, it’s over,” he said.

Hope

A shift in his mindset occurred one day as he watched children playing soccer outside the hospital window. The radio serenading the air with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland intertwined with the sounds of children laughing.

“My turning point was a simple thing,” he said. “I could hear [the children] laughing, and I thought about how I used to be one of those kids. And at that moment, I heard Judy Garland come on the radio.”

Hope had returned. 

Just two days after being released from the hospital, he returned to full flight status with the USAF, flying the LTV A-7 Corsair II. Following this, he was one of the pilots involved in forming the first Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II squadron, which led to teaching at the USAF’s Fighter Lead-In Training school.

Supersonic Speed

His page-turning journey culminates with an opportunity Shul described as his rebirth. With a child-like naivety and determination, he volunteered and obtained a spot in history as one of only 89 men to fly the SR-71 — the fastest plane on the planet. Inside the “long-range, high-altitude, Mach 3+ strategic reconnaissance aircraft” operated by the USAF, Shul was reborn.

If you’ve been fortunate enough to secure a seat in a room with Shul, you’ll know that he sticks to a specific flight path, instinctively knowing how much time he has left (right down to the second). Directing his audiences through the story of his life as he paints a vivid piece of art, the storyline often varies. Still, there’s always a place for his famous speed check story — a crowd-pleaser that entails a comical moment where the SR-71 blows an F/A-18 Hornet out of the water during a ground speed check over the radio. 

The Lockheed SR-71 is a long-range, high-altitude, Mach 3+ strategic reconnaissance aircraft. Brian Shul Photo

As he wrapped up his time on the stage at the CBAA convention, Shul reflected on the extraordinary life of the Blackbird, how the aircraft traversed the U.S. “in 68 minutes, setting eight official speed records, averaging 2,100 miles an hour.”

A pin-dropping silence enveloped the room — as his spellbound audience was left to wonder what more he could deliver.

The Last Word

“Remember that one day, an SR-71 took to the runway at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa,” said Shul. “That long, black nose swung out, waiting for its exact take off time. And the jet’s pilot that day could look out a little side window on a 15-degree heading for 2.1 miles. He could see the roof of the hospital he laid in a lifetime ago.

“And legend has it that during take off that day, the SR-71 did not climb out over the South China Sea to tanker. [Instead], it made a hard left turn at the end of the runway, full burner, 300 feet (some say much lower) to buzz over a certain soccer field. . . . Rattling every window in a certain hospital without breaking one, that jet turned back to the course, now that the entire base was alerted.

“And at that moment, the pilot knew what Einstein meant when he said, ‘Imagination is far more important than knowledge.'”

Shul retired from the Air Force in 1990 with 5,000 fighter jet hours. Today, he runs his photo studio in California and admits that his best days are spent lost in nature, photographing birds of flight. He has published seven books and is the first SR-71 pilot to put his stories to paper, illustrated with his photography. 

Shul retired from the Air Force in 1990 with 5,000 fighter jet hours. Brian Shul Photo

He’s the “only man in America to have flown extensively with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and U.S. Navy Blue Angels” while writing and photographing his exclusive experience for publication.  

And if you don’t think he’s “the luckiest guy you’ve ever seen at a podium, you have not been paying attention.”

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4 Comments

  1. Saw a talk by Brian Shul today on utube, here in Adelaide, South Australia.
    What a great man and motivational speaker he is.
    Thoroughly entertaining with a great sense of humor.
    Peter.

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