Retired Air Force Major Brian Shul, a fighter pilot who nearly died after being shot down during the Vietnam War and then, defying doctors who said his injuries would ground him forever, flew the world’s fastest jet in top-secret Cold War operations, died May 20 at a hospital in Reno, Nev. He was 75.
He collapsed and went into cardiac arrest shortly after telling his life story at the Nevada Military Support Alliance's annual gala, according to his sister, Maureen Shul.
Mr. Shul, who retired in 1990, traveled the world speaking about his life, taking the stage in an American flag shirt more than 30 times a year at conferences, corporate meetings and veteran events. His face and hands were clearly disfigured from his injuries.
“I don’t want you to confuse me with anyone that’s heroic or famous or did anything great,” Mr. Shul told an audience at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “It’s good etiquette when you check the airplane out of the squadron to bring it back. Leaving your jet in the jungle doesn’t qualify you as heroic. I am a survivor.”
In 1973, Mr. Shul was flying an AT-28 fighter jet near the Cambodian border when he was hit by small-arms fire. His plane erupted into flames as it crashed in the jungle. Mr. Shul crawled out and was rescued by a Special Forces team. More than half of his body had been badly burned.
He spent several months in military hospitals enduring treatment more painful than the flames. Even eating was unbearable.
“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 in an oral history of his career.
One day, lying in bed in severe pain, he could hear children playing soccer in the distance.
“I thought, ‘Boy, I was those kids, I’d give anything to be back out there with them,’” he said during the Lawrence Livermore speech.
Then, a song came on the radio: Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
“You listen to the words to that song, it’s all about daring to dream,” he continued. “I heard the words of that song for the first time that day. 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.”
Mr. Shul said he needed a goal to focus on. He settled on flying again, which the doctors said he’d never do. After 15 operations and several months of physical therapy, he passed a physical and resumed his pilot duties. He flew in air shows and was a flight instructor.
In 1983, he volunteered to fly the SR-71 Blackbird, a Lockheed Martin skunk works plane capable of flying at Mach 3 at 85,000 feet to conduct aerial surveillance in the days before drones.
Nicknamed “the sled,” the SR-71 flew so fast and high — it could even outrun missiles — that its pilots needed to wear astronaut suits. The plane’s windshield was four inches thick to protect occupants from the extreme temperatures created by supersonic flight.
“It would heat to 565 degrees,” Mr. Shul told the Napa Valley Register. “You could bake cookies on it.”
In a 2012 article naming him as one of three notable pilots to operate the plane, Air & Space Forces Magazine wrote, “Even now, no other aircraft has come close to matching its performance, beauty, and operational efficiency.”
“To fly this jet, and fly it well, meant establishing a personal relationship with a fusion of titanium, fuel, stick and throttles,” Mr. Shul wrote in “Sled Driver: Flying the World’s Fastest Jet.” “It meant feeling the airplane came alive and had a personality all her own.”
Brian Robert Shul was born in Quantico, Va., on Feb. 8, 1948, though he lost his middle name legally because of a clerical error when he enlisted in the Air Force. His father was a Marine Corps officer and director of the Marine Corps band. His mother was a homemaker.
The family moved around the country to his father's various posts. When he was 9, he attended an air show at what is now Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. He saw the Blue Angels and other Air Force jets zoom by overhead.
“I’m like, ‘Whoa,’” he told the Museum of Flight. “It reached in, grabbed my soul, never let go.”
Mr. Shul graduated from East Carolina University with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1970. Later that year, he enlisted in the Air Force. He flew 212 combat missions during the Vietnam War.
After retiring, in addition to his public speaking, he became a nature photographer. He also sold several books of photos he had taken while flying the SR-71.
He is survived by his sister.
Of the many highflying tales Mr. Shul told to audiences, none was more popular than the “L.A. Speed Check” story.
He and crew mate Walter Watson were flying above Southern California. Planes were checking in with air traffic control to learn their ground speed.
A Cessna radioed in — 90 knots.
A Twin Beech radioed in — 120 knots.
An F-18 radioed in — 525 knots.
Then Mr. Shul and Watson radioed in — 1,492 knots.
It was a supersonic mic drop.
“No further inquiries were heard on that frequency,” Mr. Shul said.