Brian Shul, a retired Air Force major who modestly described himself as “a survivor” rather than a hero, after he was downed in a Vietnamese jungle, where he nearly died before rebounding to pilot the world’s fastest spy plane, died on May 20 in Reno, Nev. He was 75.
The cause of his death, in a hospital, was cardiac arrest, said his sister and sole survivor, Maureen Shul, a former mayor of Castle Pines, Colo. He had collapsed as he finished regaling the annual gala of the Nevada Military Support Alliance with his aerial adventures.
Major Shul flew 212 combat missions during the Vietnam War before his T-28 Trojan ground attack jet was struck by small-arms fire and crash-landed near the Cambodian border in 1974, as the war was nearing its end.
He underwent 15 operations and spent well over a year as, he once put it, “119 pounds of blood and gauze,” recuperating from burns that covered half of his body and left his hands and face disfigured. But two days after being released from the hospital, despite doctors telling him that he would never walk again, Major Shul was back in an Air Force cockpit.
His final assignment, before he retired in 1990 after a two-decade military career, was piloting the SR-71, the world’s highest-flying jet.
The aircraft, nicknamed the Blackbird and deployed to monitor Soviet nuclear submarines and missile sites, as well as undertake reconnaissance missions over Libya, could soar to 85,000 feet, fly at more than three times the speed of sound and survey 100,000 square miles of the Earth’s surface in a single hour.
“To fly this jet, and fly it well, meant establishing a personal relationship with a fusion of titanium, fuel, stick and throttles,” Major Shul wrote in his book “Sled Driver: Flying the World’s Fastest Jet” (1991), invoking the detractive nickname U-2 pilots pinned on their Blackbird counterparts. “It meant feeling the airplane came alive and had a personality all her own.”
Major Shul piloted the Blackbird for 2,000 hours over four years. He was armed with a personal camera that he used to capture the photographs that illustrate “Sled Driver” and another book.
The Lockheed Martin SR-71 soared so high into the mid-stratosphere that its crew was outfitted in spacesuits, and it flew so swiftly that it could outpace missiles.
“We were the fastest guys on the block and loved reminding our fellow aviators of this fact,” Major Shul wrote.
Major Shul often recalled a radio exchange with air traffic controllers monitoring the ground speed of planes within their jurisdiction as his aircraft screamed 13 miles above Southern California: “I heard a Cessna ask for a readout of its ground speed. ‘90 knots,’ Center replied. Moments later, a Twin Beech required the same. ‘120 knots,’ Center answered.
“We weren’t the only ones proud of our ground speed that day,” Major Shul recalled, “as almost instantly an F-18 transmitted, ‘Ah, Center, Dusty 52 requests ground speed readout.’ There was a slight pause, then the response, ‘620 knots on the ground, Dusty.’”
Major Shul and his crew member couldn’t resist asking, too. “‘Center, Aspen 20, you got a ground speed readout for us?’ There was a longer than normal pause ‘Aspen, I show 1,942 knots’” — or 2,234 m.p.h.
“No further inquiries were heard on that frequency,” Major Shul recalled
In addition to “Sled Driver,” he wrote “The Untouchables” (1994), about flying the SR-71; “Summer Thunder” (1994), about the Air Force Thunderbirds; and “Blue Angels: A Portrait of Gold” (1995), about the Navy’s precision flying squadron.
After he was released from the hospital, he flew in air shows with the first A-10 Thunderbolt demonstration team, became the chief of air-to-ground academics for the Air Force and volunteered for a training program to fly the SR-71.
He was an avid photographer of aviation and nature, and ran a photo studio in Marysville, in Northern California.
Brian Robert Shul was born on Feb. 8, 1948, in Quantico, Va. His father, Victor, was the director of the Marine Corps band. His mother, Blanche (St. George) Shul, was a homemaker.
When he was 9 and saw the Navy’s Blue Angels perform at an air show, “I’m like, ‘Whoa,’” he told the Museum of Flight in Seattle in 2017. “It reached in, grabbed my soul, never let go.”
He graduated from East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1970 and joined the Air Force later that year.
In Vietnam, he was a foreign air adviser during the war, piloting support missions in conjunction with the Central Intelligence Agency’s Air America, which flew reconnaissance, rescue and logistical support missions for the military.
When his aircraft was attacked, he crash-landed in the jungle, where he was rescued by a Special Forces team and evacuated to Okinawa, Japan, where doctors predicted that his burns would prove fatal. He underwent two months of intensive care before he was transferred to the Institute of Surgical Research at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, where surgeons performed 15 operations over a year.
“I kept saying, ‘God, just please let me die. I can’t do this. You picked the wrong guy. I’m not strong enough. I’d have nothing to fight with now. It hurts too bad. I don’t even want to wake up each morning,’” he told the Museum of Flight.
But one day, while lying in bed, he heard children playing soccer and as he remembered being their age, the radio began to play Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow.”
“You listen to the words to that song — it’s all about daring to dream,” he said in a speech at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California in 2016.
“I heard the words of that song for the first time that day,” he continued. “They penetrated my brain sharper than any scalpel they were using, and I could look out the window and see the other side of the rainbow and those kids, and I made a choice. I made a decision right then. I am going to try to eat the food tomorrow. I want to live. I’m going to try to survive.”
“I don’t want you to confuse me with anyone that’s heroic or famous or did anything great,” he said, adding: “Leaving your jet in the jungle does not qualify as heroic. I am a survivor.”