December 2, 2023

Aviation has lost one of its brightest stars. Major Brian Schull is an incredible survivor and a top machine gun pilot, as well as a gifted photographer and storyteller with the ultimate pass. His fascinating story of flying the remarkable SR-71 Blackbird – the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft in history – will live on forever.

What kind of life will flash before this man’s eyes. Born in Quantico, Virginia, in 1948, Shure earned a degree in history from East Carolina University before enlisting in the U.S. Air Force. He was deployed to Vietnam, where he flew 212 air support missions before his T-28 Trojan light attack aircraft was shot down near the Cambodian border. Unable to eject, Shure fell to the ground in terrible gravity, crashing into the jungle deep in enemy territory.

As he described to me in our 2016 interview, the plane exploded and burst into flames. Trapped in the burning wreckage, Schur watched as the visor of his helmet began to melt, thinking that if it dripped on him it would burn his eyes. He crawled out of the wreckage, badly burned, before finding a place to disguise himself and hide as an enemy patrol was searching his area, just a few feet from his hiding place.

Bobsled rider Brian Shul (left) and New Atlas' Loz Blain at the 2016 Reno Air Race
Bobsled rider Brian Shul (left) and New Atlas’ Loz Blain at the 2016 Reno Air Race

He was eventually rescued by Special Rescue Team soldiers, but it turned into a firefight, but no Americans were killed, and they pulled him out and took him to a military hospital in Okinawa. Given the severity of his burns and other injuries in the plane crash, medics don’t think he will survive.

Through two months of intensive care, 15 major surgeries and month after month of grueling rehab, Shul has been focused on his goal of returning to active duty. That means he has to pass the Air Force flight medical, as does the director of Air Force Aerospace Medicine. The chief was particularly interested in Schur’s case and wanted to test him for himself, and if he passed, no one could challenge the verdict.

“He gave me a two-day physical,” Schur recalls, “and they were very tough on me, and they came out and said, ‘We can’t fail you.'” I had a steel needle in my finger, but the rules were just Say I need to be able to hold. So they can’t fail me. “

So, two days after being released from the hospital, Shure was back in the air, this time flying a fighter jet. He participated in air demonstrations as part of the first A-10 Thunderbolt demonstration team, became an instructor at the USAF Fighter Induction School, and was promoted to director of air-to-ground academics.

A pair of beasts: two SR-71 Blackbirds on the tarmac
A pair of beasts: two SR-71 Blackbirds on the tarmac

lockheed martin

He then applied to fly the tallest and fastest plane in the world. Lockheed Martin’s legendary SR-71 Blackbird still has never been surpassed by any rocket-dodging manned aircraft. Designed in the days of the slide rule and first flown in 1966, this formidable machine can reach 3.5 times the speed of sound—fast enough to outrun enemy missiles—and fly at altitudes as high as 85,000 feet (26,000 meters).

To pilot the Blackbird, Schur had to pass another brutal medical exam—this time for astronauts. He passed the test and claimed to have one of the highest marks the instructors had ever seen. “I’m strong inside,” he told me, “even if I look terrible.” And so began more than 2,000 hours of flying the fastest plane in history, experiencing things most people can hardly dream of.

But thanks to Shure getting that job, the rest of us can dream more clearly. Because he is not only one of the best pilots around, but also a talented photographer and a gifted storyteller who shares his experiences in the most vivid detail possible. It’s all the more amazing that the Blackbird was, at the time, “the most secret and least photogenic jet in the world,” as Schur puts it.

Self-portrait: Brian Shul in spacesuit takes off mask while piloting SR-71 Blackbird
Self-portrait: Brian Shul in spacesuit takes off mask while piloting SR-71 Blackbird

Brian Shul/US Air Force

I am so proud to own a signed copy of his incredible book sleigh driver, Schur described it as the biggest challenge of his extraordinary life, because he didn’t consider himself a talented writer. “Taking an emotional experience on such an incredible jet and translating it into a readable, sensible, intelligent communication of that feeling…is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, “he told me. “When you’re sitting in front of a blank computer screen, you’re so excited to write this book. The first paragraph I wrote I showed my girlfriend and she said, ‘Well, you used that word in the first paragraph “Gorgeous” seven times. Haha! Terrible!”

His most famous story, about speed test and that about The Slowest SR-71 Interchange Ever, circulates on the Internet regularly, thanks to Shure’s sparkling writing and Blackbird’s sheer insanity. After retiring from his Sonic life, Shure traveled as an inspirational speaker, sharing his extraordinary life with hundreds of thousands of awe-inspiring listeners around the world.

In fact, just two days earlier, while delivering a keynote address at the Nevada Military Support Coalition’s annual gala in Reno, he collapsed, went into cardiac arrest, and was unable to recover despite emergency CPR by in-house doctors. He passed away at the age of 75, and death finally brought him one of his toughest quarries.

Water vapor is condensed by low-pressure vortices created by spines on the outside of each engine intake
Water vapor is condensed by low-pressure vortices created by spines on the outside of each engine intake

Michael Haggarty/US Air Force

The world is definitely brighter and more interesting with the presence of Major Brian Schull, whose captivating story will remain among humanity’s most vivid memories of one of its greatest engineering creations. Rest in peace, legend!

source: Habblat SR-71