November 24, 2012 | bevel wise
What made this meeting so special however was not just networking and great food; rather the event (scheduled just days before Veteran’s Day) provided for a humbling reminder of just how special the men and women who serve in our military really are. The keynote speaker for the night Air Force Major Brian Shul (Ret) was the epitome of this.
Shul’s harrowing story of a common journey of a man who “left his aircraft in Vietnam jungle” to becoming one of the few pilots to ever fly one of the most iconic aircraft, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. His story is one that leaves you mesmerized and dazed, bolstered by a breathtakingly unique slideshow and video collection which depict some of the rarest photos of the Blackbird in existence today. Combined, Shul brings to life the dangerous Cold War era with a chilling realism that’s only offset by Shul’s wit and humor.
That wittiness and brash-like charm is a reminder of just how Shul represents a rarity in aviation: In the entire 34-year service history of the SR-71, only 93 men ever flew the aircraft type. However, Shul’s journey to becoming a “Sled Driver” [the affectionate name given to the aircraft’s piloting officer] begins well before in the hostile jungles over Vietnam.
Piloting the North American Aviation T-28 Trojan during the conflict, Shul flew exactly 212 missions before being shot down near the Cambodian border. Unable to eject from his crippled jet, Shul hopelessly plunged into the jungle only to live and be rescued by Special Forces.
Although alive, he crawled his way to freedom with significant injuries (including burns to much of his body) that would leave him all but written off as dead in a hospital in Okinawa.
The road to recovery was not made easy by naysayers and critics alike who doubted in his ability to heal from his wounds; however, not resisting, Shul astonished doctors and critics and began healing from his injuries. Bedridden and suffering, he began doubting himself and at one point was left to overcome the inability to eat that dropped his weight to a staggering 90lbs, as well as painful physical therapy sessions. The only escape was a small hospital room window that overlooked a soccer field where children could be heard playing. Determined by the sounds of happiness and freedom, Shul renewed his passion for life and beat expectation by making a miraculous recovery that again stunned doctors.
In fact, two days after exiting the hospital, Shul knew his calling gave him a new “life”, one he knew meant he’d have to fly again. As such he returned to the skies again that day! Naysayers and critics however believed that Shul would never pilot an aircraft again in the military.
Nevertheless, his persistence to rejoin the world and continue to do what he loved most drove him to unbelievably pass every flight physical and test required to command an aircraft again in the Air Force.
With his renewed life, he returned to commanding multiple aircraft throughout his post-Vietnam career including the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II as well as the and the lovable LTV A-7D Corsair II. Shul was given then given the ultimate opportunity to “volunteer” to fly a brand new aircraft so drenched in secret many in the world had never seen or heard of it before: the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.
In fact, the aircraft would become his final assignment before retirement in 1990. While assigned to the aircraft, Shul became one of a fortunate few to shatter speed records while topping 5,000 flight hours as well as flying some of the most important missions in the aircraft during the latter parts of the Cold War. Moreover, his passion for photography was born while led him to capture some of the rarest pictures in existence of the aircraft type. All the while never forgetting the hospital room he could have given up in Okinawa.
While Brian’s story is unique indeed (including the infamous “LA Speed Incident”); it reminds us that this Veteran’s Day we should remember those who’ve given their lives to protecting what we take for granted most days.
Today, the retired Shul is expanding his passion for photography and will be opening his first art gallery in Marysville, California later next year. As a passionate aviation onlooker, if you’re ever given the opportunity to listen to Shul’s story or even buy one of his books you owe it to yourself to do it.
If you interested in all things SR-71, check out SR-71 Blackbirds, a website dedicated to everything SR-71 that is run by a former crew chief!
Special thanks to the members of the PRSDA and Clay Lacy FBO for hosting the event; as well as everyone who attended, we’re looking forward to the next meeting!