Renowned Aviator Brian Shul Dead at 75

SR-71 pilot, author, and motivational speaker suffered heart attack after a speech in Reno, Nevada.

Renowned aviator Brian Shul, 75, died after suffering a heart attack after a speech in Reno, Nevada. [Credit: U.S. Air Force]

Brian Shul—SR-71 Blackbird pilot, inspirational speaker, photographer, author, and gifted storyteller has flown west. He was 75.

According to a social media post from his sister, Maureen Shul, on Monday, Shul was speaking in front of a large military group in Reno, Nevada, on Saturday night. As was his custom, he ended the event by signing copies of his books—he wrote several, including Sled Driver, Flying the World's Fastest Jet that chronicled his experiences flying the SR-71 Blackbird. 

According to the post, "After his speech and after the book signing Brian suffered a heart attack and collapsed." The post goes on to state CPR was performed on the spot, and he was rushed to a hospital where he died.

Shul, the Early Years

Shul was born on February 8, 1948, in Quantico, Virginia. He joined the Air Force in 1970 shortly after graduating from East Carolina University with a degree in history. He became an attack pilot during the Vietnam War, flying 212 combat missions.

According to Shul, toward the end of the war he was shot down while flying an AT-28D Trojan along the Cambodian border and endured a fiery crash behind enemy lines. Badly burned and blinded because his helmet visor had melted, Shul crawled out of the burning wreckage.

When he spoke about the experience to audiences, he would joke that he was "just a lieutenant at the time and didn't know how to make a decision," so as he lay on the jungle floor he "could not choose between his water bottle or his gun." A helicopter crew sent to rescue him could not land in the dense jungle, so the pilot kept the aircraft in a hover while crewmen "scooped him up like a sack of rice" and medevaced him out of the area. He would tell the audiences: "I knew then that I was on the right team."

Shul underwent several surgeries and extensive physical therapy with the goal of returning to flight status. He flew as part of the A-10 demonstration team and later became an Air Force instructor pilot.

Shul followed that up by volunteering to fly the SR-71 Blackbird. The Blackbird, designed as a reconnaissance aircraft, first flew in the 1960s and was still in use in the 1980s. To do this, Shul had to pass an astronaut-level physical, which he did, something impressive in itself since just a few years earlier surgeons did not believe he would recover from his crash injuries.

Shul was a favorite speaker at airshows, fly-ins, and aviation museums. Usually wearing a flight suit and later a polo shirt with an American flag motif, he told the audience declassified technical information about the once-super-secret SR-71, including details as how the windows of the aircraft would get as hot as a pizza oven and he would heat up his lunch. It had to be consumed through a straw—since the flight crew wore astronaut pressure suits and helmets—by holding the tube of food against the window with his gloved hand. He noted that the ability to climb significantly higher and fly faster than any other aircraft were its defensive attributes. “The only weapon on board was the pocketknife carried by the backseater."

His missions took place at the height of the Cold War. Shul described being chased by Russian MiGs that couldn't catch the SR-71 and added that the flights were often frightening and very fatiguing—since they required eight hours in the cockpit—but were also rewarding.

"The Berlin Wall came down on our watch," he noted.

A head-on view of NASA's SR-71B on the ramp at the Air Force's Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, shortly before delivery to Dryden Flight Research Center. [Courtesy: NASA]

The favorite story of most who came to hear Shul speak was about his ground speed check over Southern California, where several pilots—including one flying an F/A-18 Hornet—were engaged in a game of one-upmanship regarding which airplane sported the fastest ground speed. This was during the pre-GPS days when pilots would check on with Center to get a ground speed check.

As told by Shul, his backseater, Walt Watson, was in charge of the radios. They were coming close to the end of a long flight when they heard a Cessna pilot requesting a ground speed check (90 knots), then a twin Beech asked for one (120 knots), followed by a Navy F-18 pilot’s request for one. That caught Shul's and Watson's attention because they both knew the F-18 was equipped with ground speed readout on the heads-up display. As Shul told it, Center had just informed the F-18 pilot that his speed was 620 knots across the ground when Watson clicked on and asked for a ground speed check. Center replied: "Aspen 30 heavy we show you at 1,942 knots across the ground," and Watson replied, "Center, we're showing a little closer to 2,000."

Photography, Writing

After retiring from piloting the SR-71, Shul focused on writing and photography. His books put the reader into the cockpit of airplanes few people will ever see.

His first two books—Sled Driver: Flying the World's Fastest Jet and The Untouchables—are about the SR-71 Blackbird. His third and fourth books put you in formation with the Navy Blue Angels and Air Force Thunderbirds. When talking about the book Blue Angels: A Portrait of Gold, Shul said he was allowed to take the stick for a few minutes during a flight and that flight time— all four minutes of it—was in his logbook "in gold.” He then went on to fly with the Thunderbirds, which resulted in the book Summer Thunder.

Shul’s books are filled with rich descriptions and colorful photography. His last book, Eagle Eyes: Action Photography from the Cutting Edge, features in-flight photographs. At the time of his death, Shul operated a photography studio in Marysville, California. In addition to aviation, nature was one of his favorite subjects to photograph, and the hills around Marysville were rife with it.

I knew Brian personally. I met him one summer when I worked at an aviation museum. He was the guest speaker, and I was his host for a three-day event. We stayed in touch over the years—he was very pleased to hear I had become a flight instructor and reminded me that the job is "the most important link in the chain."

Wherever he went, Shul drew crowds like a rock star. When you heard him speak, you could not help but be impressed by all he accomplished and respectful when he spoke of the gratitude he felt every day. He often described himself as a man with two birthdays, as he was given a second chance at life at the age of 25 after being shot down in Vietnam. He left audiences feeling grateful for all they had.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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