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SR–71 pilot Brian Shul dies

Brian Shul, who was one of the first to pilot a Lockheed SR–71 Blackbird and flew Mach 3.5 in the storied reconnaissance aircraft, died May 20 in Reno, Nevada. He was 75.

Photo by Chris Rose.

Shul suffered a heart attack after a speech and book signing, according to a social media post confirmed by his sister, Maureen Shul.

Born in February 1948, Shul served in the U.S. Air Force as an attack pilot during the Vietnam War. After flying 212 combat missions, Shul was shot down near the end of the conflict, suffering burns so severe that he was not expected to live. He remained in intensive care for two months. “While I was there, I learned a lot about life,” he said in 2010. “Nobody’s ever trained to be a patient in a hospital, much less a burn ward. It was in this two months that I really learned and formulated ideas and thoughts about life” that guided him for the remainder of his life.

After a year of hospitalization, surgeries, and physical therapy, Shul was able to pass a flight physical and return to active duty. “When I got out of hospital a year later, I was now armed with a new philosophy: ‘Live fearlessly. What do you have to lose? You’re not going back to the burn ward,’” Shul said. “Follow your passion with fearlessness, because why would you want to live your life without your passion? ... Life is short, and it’s uncertain. It’s not short or uncertain—it’s both. Every day is such a gamble and such a gift that we should not waste any more time.”

When he returned to active duty, Shul flew the LTV A–7D Corsair II and the Fairchild Republic A–10 Thunderbolt II. He was an A–10 instructor pilot and also instructed at the Air Force’s Fighter Lead-in School as chief of air-to-ground academics.

When he applied to fly the SR–71, a high-altitude, high-speed, long-range strategic reconnaissance aircraft, Shul was told that his medical records would probably preclude him from any possibility of joining the program. “I applied my philosophy: What’s the worst that could happen?” Shul said. “All they can do is say no. They can’t send me back to the burn ward.” He had the sixth highest score ever achieved for the flight exam. “It’s just because I made the effort,” he said. “I tried.”

After retiring from the Air Force in 1990, Shul opened a photography studio near his home in California and wrote seven books, including Sled Driver: Flying the World’s Fastest Jet and The Untouchables, about flying the SR–71 Blackbird. Shul frequently spoke at aviation gatherings about his experiences, and enthralled audiences with his aerial photography and narratives from his Air Force career.

Jill W. Tallman
Jill W. Tallman
AOPA Technical Editor
AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who is part-owner of a Cessna 182Q.
Topics: People

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