Brian Shul is a retired US Air Force (USAF) pilot. His story is one with many twists and turns, but he has risen to prominence as a result of his time flying the SR-71 Blackbird, the photographs he took during that time and Sled Driver, the book he subsequently wrote. Rob Edgcumbe sat down with him to find out more of his story.
With the 50th anniversary of the SR-71 Blackbird’s first flight having recently passed, Brian Shul has been busy producing special anniversary editions of his books Sled Driver and The Untouchables. The former covers his time flying the Blackbird and is illustrated with his own photographs, taken throughout his career flying the SR-71. The Untouchables is the story of the missions he undertook over Libya in 1986 as part of the strikes against the Gaddafi regime, also illustrated with his own photography.
While Brian had always been a story-teller and had some writing experience, he needed something to make this book come to life. One of the triggers for him to start the process of writing the book was sitting down with a famous aviation photographer, the late George Hall. Brian had known George for a number of years and wanted his opinion on the photographs that he had taken whilst on the SR-71 program: “I showed my pictures to George Hall. He put them on the light table and there was silence for 20 minutes. I thought, ‘these must be so bad’. He pushed back his chair and said ‘Do you have any idea what you have here?’ That was what gave me the confidence to get a publisher.”
George had seen a selection of images taken of Blackbirds in service that were unlike anything he could photograph. He might get one shoot a year, and a limited option as to what the shoot could include, but Brian’s shots were taken during normal service operations and included a wide variety of scenes and situations. They included ground operations, runway shots, flying shots, views from the tankers, and all of them were never to be repeated. Getting permission to take the photographs had been tricky, even for a crew member. However, when asking for permission, the suggestion of how good the shots would look on the wall of the boss’ office often led to a brief window of approval!
Writing the book was not a straightforward task. It was something Brian had been thinking about for a while, though. “I read all the books when I was younger and loved the authors that could put me in the cockpit. I thought someday I would write it.” An initial draft was sent to a friend who was an editor. He tore it to shreds but the subsequent reworks got progressively better. “The more I rewrote it, the better it got. It took a lot of time to do.”
The publishing company that put out the initial version of the book was subsequently to go bust. Wisely, Brian had written into his contract that the rights would revert to him. This allowed him to be freed from the quality concerns he had regarding the original version. He felt the publisher had cut too many corners and the book could be so much better. Therefore, he decided to publish it himself but, this time, do it the way he wanted. Doing so required him to take out a loan for $100,000 – quite a decision to make. Fortunately, since the publication of the original edition, a significant change had taken place.
“The internet happened between the first edition and the new version I did. People were selling that old edition for $400.” The level of interest in the book had soared as a result of the ability of people to share online what interested them. A specialised subject such as Brian’s could now reach a wider audience. Even so, it was still an investment that carried some risk. “I was eating peanut butter sandwiches for two years devoting my time to this”, he says. Ultimately, the risk paid off and Brian has been able to sell the books and has shared his experiences through many speaking engagements.
The reason that he is able to speak to a wide range of audiences is that Brian’s career has involved far more than just flying the Blackbird. At the age of eight, Brian was taken by his father to an airshow where he fell in love with the idea of flying fast jets. When he found that someone would pay you to do this as a job, he decided that was the job for him. Upon graduation from college, he signed up for the USAF.
The recruiter saw Brian’s passion for flying, even though he hadn’t done any flying at that point and had not been involved in any military programmes at college. However, his introduction to flying did not go as planned. His first training was on Cessna piston singles in Texas. “When I first did it, it was terrible. I was one of those people on the cutting board.” He knew that he was close to not making it. “I know I have an aptitude for this. I just feel it. That didn’t carry me very far. Did I really hold on to this dream for 15 years for me to wash out? It was like the cocoon and the caterpillar. I thought there was no way I was going to fly. The Cessna was so horrendous. I’ve duped myself and wasted my whole life’s dream.”
Fortunately, another instructor took him aside and gave him some guidance on how to relax and fly the aircraft, rather than being so mechanical and determined to do it exactly the way he was told. This advice got him solo in the Cessna and he moved on to T-37s and then T-38s. Through each stage Brian became progressively more confident and competent; from being 36th in his Cessna class, he ended up as 6th in his T-38 class. Unfortunately, this was where things nearly went wrong.
Almost all of the slots for pilots in his class were for B-52s and C-130s. There was one slot on F-4s and one on F-106s, so the top two guys got those. That left the big aircraft for the rest. “I had no intention of flying those. Further down the list they had a T-28. I was the only one that knew what that was. That was at least closer to a fighter. It won’t be around forever and it will keep me out of big airplanes.”
Consequently, Brian went from flying jets to a piston close support aircraft. This took him to southeast Asia where his next big challenge occurred. Brian was shot down and, unable to bail out of his AT-28D, he rode it down into the jungle. The ensuing crash resulted in a fire and Brian suffered extensive burns. A rescue team pulled him from the jungle and he was transported to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, where it was not clear that he would survive.
Part of the talks that Brian gives relate to his experiences in hospital. His inability to eat meant he was rapidly wasting away. He had reconciled himself to death at one point, but was ultimately inspired to try again to force down food. With great difficulty, he was eventually able to keep down liquids and this was enough to sustain him while he gradually progressed to other solid foods. Slowly he could rebuild his strength. Even so, he still had to undergo extensive surgery and rehabilitation as a result of the burns he had suffered.
Despite having survived, he was assumed to have no chance of flying again. Brian is a determined person and he was certain that the end of his career was not going to come to pass. He fought through and was eventually reinstated to full flying status. He then went on to fly the A-10 and instruct at the Fighter Lead-In School at Nellis AFB, before moving on to the SR-71 for four years prior to its retirement.
The Blackbird is an aircraft that many people know about and are interested in due to the secretive nature of its operations, but it wasn’t Brian’s favourite aircraft to fly: “I had more fun in the A-10, doing air shows, yanking and banking and scaring yourself. For pure fun, that plane was it. I was in the first A-10 squadron so we got to write the books. We did the things you don’t do anymore. We’d say, okay that was a bit too low!” However, the SR-71 flights were where he felt that he was doing something worthwhile. “You were doing something real for America and it counted. Lots of pressure and stress but we accepted that. It was the most satisfying. You took away a lot of the fun like pulling G and shooting the gun but you had the sense of satisfaction that you were making a difference. Besides, you had the fastest plane on the block and had an airplane that was first in its class. You were using a plane to kick their ass and it felt good!”
When the SR-71 was retired in 1990, Brian had little enthusiasm for what the USAF might have to offer next. He had avoided Staff College and had been in the cockpit for 20 years, so he decided it was time to retire too. He contemplated continuing a career in flying, however, that wasn’t what he really wanted at that juncture: “I was 42 years old and it was the first time I was not under pressure to perform for someone else. I was going to write and hike and do my photography. I’ve been living the dream ever since!”
However, he did manage to have one more crack at exciting flying as part of his writing. He worked with both the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds and produced two books, Blue Angels – Portrait of Gold and Summer Thunder, to tell the stories of those teams. With all of the excitement of flying with the teams during the production of the books, he felt he got something out of his system. Now, he focuses on his nature photography and undertaking speaking engagements around the USA, tied in to promoting and selling his books.
The speaking role came from his experiences after being shot down. “I get out of the hospital and they say, ‘we can use this guy as a safety officer. We have never had someone come back after a crash.’ I found everyone would fall asleep in safety meetings, so I made it interesting and funny.” This was something that continued when he became an instructor at Nellis AFB. “Then I was at Fighter Weapons School and I became Mr. Entertainer. I learned to be creative. I became a speaker with the hardest crowd – fighter pilots at three in the afternoon who want to go to happy hour!”
There was another side to Brian’s story that people wanted to hear. His experiences as a patient were valuable to the medical professionals who rarely got to understand how things were from a patient’s perspective. He had been through some traumatic procedures and was willing and able to share what that was like. He produced a video that was shown to all USAF medical staff for many years until the VHS tapes wore out!
These elements all developed in parallel. With the publication of the books, another aspect was added. “I had a safety talk, a medical talk and a luncheon talk. This is before I had the SR talk. Now I take all three and I can mash them together.” From this, Brian now undertakes a steady stream of speaking engagements throughout the year. Many are not aviation related at all. However, the Blackbird is very well-known and the photos he took whilst flying the aircraft offer a unique perspective, so he can add that in to the story. Whatever the audience, he feels there is a common theme. “We want to be entertained, we want something interesting, and we want something uplifting.”
Being put in the position of a pilot is something that most audiences cannot appreciate. It is something that Brian likes to try and share. “What you don’t see in the movies is how humbling being a fighter pilot is. Every day on the back of that tanker you think, ‘Why the hell am I doing this? I could be down in those houses watching football right now and I am doing this in a storm.’ When it’s over you are so drained and you cannot share that with anyone. They have no concept of what you have done. The next day you think ‘Yeah, we got through it, we’re still alive!’”
Through all of this, Brian still feels that he is not the sort of person portrayed by the stereotypical fighter pilot. He likes solitude and wilderness and the chance to get out hiking and enjoying the scenery. He certainly likes talking to the many different crowds he meets, be they medical, aviation or corporate event goers. He enjoys entertaining people and it provides him with an opportunity to sell his books along the way. All of that, in the end, gives him the means to focus on the things he really loves. He can retreat to his home in California, where no-one much bothers about who he is, and photograph the wildlife that is his passion.
Brian sums it up as follows: “I’ve never considered myself to be a great writer or photographer, but I have a passion for it.” That may be true, but for those who have met him, heard him speak and seen his work, I suspect they will agree that the passion he shares is equaled by the quality of what he has produced. He has certainly led an interesting life – one for which he views each new day as a bonus – and his enthusiasm is infectious. For those wanting to check out his work further, visit http://www.sleddriver.com/.