Episode 15: Brian Shul talks about piloting the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane

Brian Shul // Jul 5, 2016

Brian Shul speaks softly and carries a big stick. The American war hero every bit worthy of Roosevelt’s words flew 212 missions in the Vietnam War before his nearly fatal crash. With his body severely burned, Shul was in so much pain that he wanted to die.

Then one day, lying in his hospital bed, he heard children playing soccer and the voice of Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow” on the radio. Suddenly, Shul, at 25-years-old, realized he had a lot to live for. He set himself on a determined road of recovery that would span 15 reconstructive surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy.

Shul eventually turned his amazing story of survival into his greatest strength, and he went on to be one of fewer than 100 people to pilot the SR-71 Blackbird, a U.S. spy plane largely operational during the Cold War and thereafter.

Shul and flight engineer Walter Watson flew multiple missions in which they escaped missiles over enemy territory including the Soviet Union and Libya, gathering footage and information that would help the U.S. win the Cold War.

Unlike other STEM-Talk guests, Shul is neither engineer nor scientist, but he piloted and knew intimately of one of the greatest feats of both. The plane went 3,400 feet per second, which is faster than most bullets and is the speed of traveling between LA and D.C. in an hour and four minutes.

For more information on Brian Shul, visit his Wiki page: Also, check out the YouTube video of his IHMC lecture, “From Butterflies to Blackbirds,” which has had more than 180,000 viewers:

Shul is also the author of Sled Driver: The World’s Fastest Jet: and The Untouchables: Here is a link to Shul’s recently opened photo gallery in Marysville, California:

00:35: Dawn introduces herself and Ken Ford.

00:51: Ford says the SR-71 was the “remarkable product” of a sustained United States investment in STEM.

2:23: Ford reads an iTunes 5-star review of STEM-Talk from PTL Stan: “I love these interviews with the people who are leading these fields. Good science with amazingly friendly interviews by the experts themselves. The quality is amazingly good, and the subjects move right along with my thinking. Thank you, IHMC.”

2:54: Dawn describes Shul’s background. He became an airshow demonstration pilot and taught at the Air Force’s Top Gun School. He retired from the Air Force in 1990.

3:58: Shul was born in Quantico, Va. His father, who had spent 32 years in the Marine Corp, encouraged Shul to join the Air Force because of his strong interest in flying.

5:30: Shul describes the “moment of peace” before his plane crashed during the Vietnam War. “The inevitability of impacting the earth became quite clear…. For a very brief moment, you could actually see your life flash before your eyes. In a nanosecond, I could see the funeral; I could see my parents standing at graveside. And then of course the crash and the fire brought you back to reality.”

6:43: Shul describes his blind escape from the burning plane: “The heat of the fire and the reality that I had not died and was still alive became apparent to me with the pain of the fire.”

7:40: Shul describes his will to live, despite periods of deep depression and wanting to die.

10:32: ‘I’m the product of a lot of people who helped me along the way, from therapists, to surgeons, to nurses, to doctors, to Air Force flight surgeons. There were a lot of people who had a lot to do with getting Brian Shul out of a hospital bed back into the cockpit.”

13:00: “I was in awe of my own body that wanted to heal itself…. You had to want to do your therapy, and it’s not an easy thing to want when it’s just going to hurt the whole time you’re doing it.”

14:15: Shul describes his tenure of teaching at the Air Force Top Gun school.

15:30: Shul underwent a series of intensive selection process in order to fly the SR-71.

16:25: Brian describes what he means by coming out of his crash experience ‘fearless:’ “You’re not afraid to live your life fully. We’re all terminal; we’re all terminal everyday. Once you’ve come that close [to dying] you have a renewed vitality. Until that happens, you don’t want to miss a minute of [life]. That puts you on a little different frequency than the average person…”

18:16: Commercial break: STEM-Talk is an educational service of the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a not-for-profit research lab pioneering ground-breaking technologies aimed at leveraging human cognition, perception, locomotion and resilience.

18:37: Ford notes the SR-71 was developed in secrecy by Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. A legendary engineer, Kelly Johnson, played a key, pivotal role in its design.

19:00: Shul refers to the plane as “the most remarkable aircraft of the twentieth century.” It would be exposed to 500 to 900 degrees Fahrenheit; they had to come up with oil, hydraulic fluid and fuel that would work in those temps.

24:04: Missiles were launched against the SR-71 over 4,000 times in 25 years; they never shot one down.

24:39: Shul describes evading two missiles over Libya on April 15, 1986. While evading the missiles, Shul and Watson reached the remarkable speed of Mach 3.5.

25:00: The faster it went, the better it flew.

27:22: “In a way, it’s a difficult shot, but you never feel invulnerable [despite the high altitude and speed.] When you’re sitting out on the tip of the sword, and penetrating enemy air space, and know that everyone is pointing his missile at you…”

28:37: “It was your ’57 Chevy. It was solid. You knew you were in the best thing that was ever built.”

32:35: “It was alone in its superiority to all other planes…. Just in the way it looked.”

35:45: “The spike inlet system was the heart of why they have never been able to duplicate this system.”

36:57: Shul describes refueling right after take-off and then refueling 3-5 times on a mission.

41:24: Reagan went to so many SALT talks, and he’d come home with some concession; people assumed he was the master negotiator. What you didn’t know was that the Russians would say that they weren’t testing those missiles. But we could say, “Walter and Brian have a photo of it…So you knew you were having an effect in fighting Communism and winning.”

42:52: “It was the epitome of Yankee technology.”

43:51: “Walter [Watson] and I are best friends to this day. Brilliant engineer: only African-American officer in Air Force history involved with this program. You needed a guy like that in the back seat. He is the heart of the mission. I kidded that if we were ever shot down, he was the spy; I was just the driver.”

45:22: “You had to learn to work together as a team because both cockpits were radically different. That’s why the training took one year.”

49:18: Shul has a life-long love of photography that started with Sports Illustrated action shots. He got himself a small instamatic during pilot training, when he just started taking pictures. He’d always been a nature lover, too, especially birds and butterflies.

51:04: “As an aviator, I found a deep passion and love for nature’s fliers. I’m in awe of how they do it; what they do. It centers me.” He is now opening up a photo gallery called from Butterflies to Blackbirds.

51:48: “One of the things I learned lying in that hospital bed is if you’re not doing your passion in life, and doing the things you love, you’re wasting those minutes; because it’s all over all too quick.”

53:57: “On April 11th, of every year, I celebrate my second birthday in life; I could have easily had my life over at 25 years old. I’ve had 42 extra years.”

54:32: Shul’s advice: “Fearlessly approach your passions and do them because you don’t know how many years you have.”

56:27: After retiring from the Blackbird, Shul turned his attention to his lifelong passion of photography. “There’s more to life than just flying an airplane. There’s more to life than just one chapter. I hope my book has more than one chapter.”

58:14: Dawn and Ken sign off.