Meet the man who flew the SR-71 Blackbird —the world’s fastest jet

Pilot Brian Shul discusses his unique trajectory—in life and in flight—ahead of his Hiller Aviation Museum event

By Kali Shiloh

Speed demons: pilots of the Blackbird SR-71 looking as top secret as the plane itself. (Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin)

The ups and downs of Brian Shul’s life have been both literal and extreme. Shot down over Vietnam, the fighter pilot suffered extensive burns and broken hands before enduring 15 reconstructive surgeries during a year in the hospital. But the fire inside of him ultimately propelled the Air Force major to the greatest of heights — inside the top secret cockpit of the SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest plane ever built.

On [2019 update—Saturday, December 28th], Shul will visit the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos for the fourth year in a row to tell stories of his crash, recovery, and the four years he spent flying over three times the speed of sound. Though social media and software are now the local niche, Shul’s visit to Silicon valley speaks to the often forgotten legacy of the Peninsula as a region steeped in pioneering aerospace history.

Pilot Brian Shul was just one of 93 pilots to ever fly the cutting-edge top-secret Blackbird SR-71. (Photo courtesy of Brian Shul)

Something my bicycle can’t do

Shul found his calling early: “When I was about 8 I went to an airshow, and that was the end of it . . . I thought, ‘Wow, there’s something my bicycle can’t do.’”

The sounds of jets firing their afterburners gripped his soul and held on tightly. “I gotta try that at least once,” he remembers thinking, “before the Yankees call me to play third base, which I was pretty sure they were gonna.”

With his heart aimed skyward, Shul joined the Air Force at 22. It was toward the end of the Vietnam War, with 212 missions under his belt, that enemy fire forced his plane to a crash land in the jungle near the border of Cambodia. He never lost consciousness and caught on fire almost immediately. “I saw that my flight suit was all charred and black, and then I realized: ‘That’s not your flight suit, that’s your arm.’ And then I couldn’t look at it anymore.” He was rescued by special forces and flown to Okinawa, but doctors feared his condition was terminal.

The body of the Blackbird was almost completely built of titanium alloy, never before attempted because of titanium’s brittle nature. Although the lightweight metal would be able to withstand the extreme heat created by a jet designed to cruise at three times the speed of sound, the brittle panels were continuously cracking as they expanded with heat during test flights. The simple Skunk Works solution? Install joint expanders so the exterior panels weren’t flush when the plane was on the ground (similar to the way freeways have expansion joints to allow heat-induced expansion of overpasses). (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Michael Haggerty)

Not even Shul believed he would be able to fly again. “I didn’t think I could do it for a long time. I just realized that if I pretended like I could maybe do it, it would get me through the therapy.” After a year in the hospital, he passed a flight physical with no waivers.

Shul flew for the Air Force for another 12 years, but when he was told he’d be transferred to a desk job, he knew he had more left in the tank. One way to stay in the cockpit, he knew, was to volunteer for the SR-71 program — highly classified and yet struggling to recruit pilots. Shul lobbied hard to be considered, and after numerous calls and letters he was granted an interview. Once accepted, he spent four years flying the highly classified aircraft. “The Yankees never called me,” he jokes, “[but] I thought, ‘well . . . I did it, I lived the dream.’”

Like Shul himself, the Blackbird SR-71 was not only shaped by matters of American foreign policy, but ascendent from the wreckage of tragedy.

A small side effect — one of many quirks unique to the Blackbird — was constant fuel leakage. In the brief 20-month gestation of the aircraft, no fuel tank was able to withstand the extreme heat and altitude, so the design team didn’t include one. The skin of the plane was the fuel tank, and as it only fit loosely together at subsonic speeds, the plane seeped fuel continuously through every crevice until it reached Mach 2 (at which point, Shul has said in interviews, “it sealed like tupperware and didn’t lose a drop”). (Photo by USAF / Judson Brohmer — Armstrong Photo Gallery)

Thirteen miles high, and faster than a rifle bullet

Around the same time that Shul was gripped by flight at his first childhood airshow, the U.S. government was resolved to rebound from the U-2 spy plane debacle by creating a reconnaissance aircraft that simply couldn’t be shot down.

At a now infamous (but then-secret) division of Lockheed, known as Skunk Works, aerospace engineers and machinists toiled for 20 straight months in a two-story, windowless building near the municipal airport in Burbank, California, working to somehow create a plane that could capture military data from foreign enemies without being compromised by missiles and radar detection.

In pushing the boundaries of what was possible, the team was quite literally inventing a new way to make a plane. The result was an aircraft that was truly built for speed — a thoroughbred that performed better the faster it went. At its unbelievable maximum speed and altitude — over 13 miles high, traveling faster than a rifle bullet — the craft’s photographic equipment was capable of honing in on the detail of a person’s name tag. Conversely, conventional navigation systems couldn’t keep up with the Blackbird as it hurtled through enemy territory not at miles per hour, but miles per second.

Clockwise from top: Barreling along above 90% of the earth’s atmosphere, the plane’s altitude capabilities required each of its 93 pilots to pass astronaut physicals before embarking on a single mission; the speed, altitude, and heat of the aircraft required unique solutions like nitrogen-filled tires and fuel that wouldn’t ignite when heated (“You could throw a lit match into a bucket of this fuel and it would extinguish the match,” Shul once said.); a shot from the cockpit at 83,000 feet above the ground. (Images courtesy of Brian Shul and Lockheed Martin)

The Blackbird served six presidents, capturing data, informing foreign policy decisions, and evading every missile launched at it for 25 years. Though more than 4,000 attempts were made, the titanium titan was retired without once being hit. “The Blackbird did more to help win the Cold War than you will ever know,” Shul says.

Of the 93 pilots to fly the SR-71, Shul was the only one who brought along his passion for photography. A budding amateur, he occasionally gained permission to photograph his craft, which he deems the “best subject you could ever hope for.” The nature of Blackbird missions was highly classified, but Shul’s glimpses of insider documentation gives insight into what it meant to be the pilot of one of the world’s most sophisticated top secret vessels.

Shul and the Blackbird have both retired, but remain symbolically linked as examples of human drive and persistence. Shul’s drive though has always been more down-to-earth than the design of the Blackbird: “I think you should always do stuff you love . . . that you have a passion for, and if you’re not doing that, then I always say, why not? You’re spinning your wheels, wasting life. It goes by. It goes by really quick.”

Though more than 4,000 attempts were made, the Blackbird SR-71 was retired without once being hit. (Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin)
Brian Shul will speak at Hiller Aviation Museum for the fourth consecutive year. (Photo courtesy of Brian Shul)

2019 Date: The Hiller Aviation Museum will host a presentation and book signing by Brian Shul on Saturday, December 28th at 11am. More details for the event can be found here.

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