‘The Sled Driver Has Flown West’: SR-71 Pilot Brian Shul In The Words Of A Close Friend And Fellow Aviator

Two of Brian Shul's most famous shots: his favorite photo he took of the SR-71 from the Boom Operator position of a KC-135Q and a self portrait in the cockpit of the Blackbird (Image credit: Brian Shul via Edward Pernotto)

Celebrated SR-71 pilot, author and Vietnam hero Brian Shul has Died. His presentations and books made him prominent, but his valor made him a hero.

U.S. Air Force Major (Retired) Brian Shul, who earned notoriety for his work on the SR-71 Blackbird program, has died of an apparent cardiac arrest on May 20, 2023. He was 75 years old.

Shul became an SR-71 pilot years after being shot down in the Vietnam War while flying a single engine propeller driven T-28 Trojan close-air support aircraft. Shul suffered serious burns in the fiery impact, but managed to evade enemy forces on the ground to be rescued by Air Force Special Operations the next day. Shul’s burns were so severe he was not expected to survive. But following his remarkable survival, Air Force physicians told him he would never fly again. Undeterred, Shul managed to make a dramatic recovery and become an A-7D and one of the first A-10 pilots.

But while Shul’s Vietnam and later flying experiences were already worthy of legend, he achieved widespread notoriety following his involvement in the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird operational program, his final assignment before retiring from the Air Force.

Shul’s most repeated anecdote about flying the SR-71 grew to legendary status as aviation bloggers, YouTubers and social media repeated his famous “L.A. Speed Check Story”, the tale of radio communications between him, the pilot of single-engine Cessna, a twin-engine Beechcraft Bonanza, a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet and Shul’s SR-71 as an air traffic controller reported each aircraft’s speed over the radio, with Shul’s SR-71 winning out dramatically. The story has become so viral that a Google search on the key words, “L.A. Speed Check Story” returns a staggering 169-million results.

Shul became a noted and revered aviation author and speaker following his retirement. He wrote four books, including his famous books about the SR-71, Sled Driver and The Untouchables. First editions of either book with Shul’s autograph now sell for thousands on the secondary book market. Shul’s other two books were about U.S. military flight demonstration teams. He was also sought after as a speaker at corporate, civic and military functions. Crowds were amazed and entertained by his lively narrative and sardonic wit.

But perhaps the most endearing qualities of Brian Shul included his friendliness and enthusiasm. Before his passing Shul could be seen in a booth at airshows and conventions promoting his books, the Air Force mission and relating stories about people he served with. While Shul had the well-deserved swagger of an exceptional airman, he was also humble and accessible, willing to chat with others about their service in addition to relating his own experiences.

Colonel USAFR (Ret.) Edward “Otto” Pernotto, wrote for The Aviationist a great memory of his close friend and fellow aviator Brian Shul. Otto is a Master Navigator with over 2,000 hours flying B-52G’s, FB-111A’s, and HC-130’s. His assignments included The Joint Staff, US Special Operations Command and the Air Staff. He deployed twice to Iraq, served on two US aircraft carriers, and is the author of the novel “Chained Eagle” an action adventure story of veterans using a unique historical aircraft to rescue a retired US Navy SEAL from a prison in Iran.

Here Otto’s account of his friendship with the Sled Driver:

I was a teenage Civil Air Patrol Cadet when I read the incredible story of Air Force pilot Brian Shul who survived a horrific crash at the end of the Vietnam War. Brian and a Royal Thai Air Force pilot were shot down in an AT-28D near the Cambodian border, the Thai pilot was killed, and Brian severely burned in the crash and rescued by Air Force special operators. Sent to Okinawa, he was told he would die and was allowed to call his parents to say goodbye. He would eventually be stabilized and sent to the Army Burn Center in Texas where he would be one of the most severely burned aviators in history to make it back to the cockpit.

After his recovery and passing a physical, he would go on to fly the A-7D and be one of the first cadre in the A-10 Warthog. The Air Force would feature him in an Airman magazine article which I had seen and could not believe his story. He became the A-10 demo pilot and he came to the Cleveland National Airshow where I was working on the flight line. I looked up to see the scarred face and realized it was my hero, Brian Shul. From that point, we would become very close friends and he would mentor me my whole life. After the A-10, he would be assigned to Holloman Air Force Base at the Lead in Fighter Training as the chief of Air to Ground teaching brand new fighter pilots Basic Fighter Maneuvers in the modified AT-38B. Brian’s students would be razed at the Officers Club bar by the F-15 instructors and students there and they would belittle the air to ground students as a lesser mission.

Brian was the son of a Marine who served in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam and believed the most important mission of airpower was to support the ground troops and he would write a document called “The Mission- Air to Ground” and I may have the only surviving copy. He hand-typed it for me. It is 10 dictums to understand why the Air to Ground Mission was much more important than Air to Air. Number 8 is “You can shoot down all the Migs you want, but when you return from the mission to find an SA-6 site in your main briefing room, you’ve lost the war.” And the final point, number 10: “Finally, real men fly Air to Ground because they understand the fundamental law of wartime negotiations. You negotiate with the enemy with your knee in his chest and your knife at his throat.”

Brian would be selected to fly the SR-71, something unusual for a single seat fighter pilot when nearly all SR-71 crew members came from the Strategic Air Command and he would be crewed with Walter Watson, the only African American to fly the jet. They were an interesting combination, the history major, single seat fighter pilot paired with the cerebral engineer navigator, and they would go on to fly several years together. As I was going through Air Force Navigators training, I would visit Brian and Walter occasionally and attended Brian’s “Mach 3” party and their crew party after they flew their first sortie together. Brian would pin my wings on when I graduated and one of my proudest possessions is a note that accompanied my wings signed by Brian and Walt.

Brian brought his passion for photography into the cockpit and captured some of the most iconic photos that any aviator has ever taken. He would go on to write some of the best aviation books ever published, Sled Driver, The Untouchables with Walter, and he spent an airshow season with the Thunderbirds writing Summer Thunder and another with the Blue Angels writing Blue Angels A Portrait of Gold. In my humble opinion, one of the most incredible aviation photos ever taken was a photo by Brian of Burke Lakefront Airport as Brian was flying with The Blues from the back seat of an FA-18 pointed directly down at the runway. That is where I first met Brian and I would later fly an FB-111 at the same airshow in front of my mom and dad.

For this article, I have reread the book their book “The Untouchables”. It’s one of the most fascinating aviation books ever as the story of a crew flying in one of the most notable air operations in history. Brian and Walt were deployed to Mildenhall England when one day there were called into the squadron and told the F-111’s from nearby Lakenheath were going to bomb Libya the next day. Walt was a former F-111 WSO and personally knew many of their aircrews. Their book takes you into the cockpit of Blackbird tail number 960 for their three days of flying, this Blackbird is proudly displayed at the Castle Air Museum in Merced California which is also the final resting place of the last FB-111 I flew, Madame Queen, another data point I share with Brian and Walter.

Reconnaissance System Officer Colonel Walter Watson, USAF (retired) the only African American SR-71 crewmember and his pilot, Major Brian Shul. A formidable team and friends forever. (Image credit: via Edward Pernotto)

On their first flight for Operation Eldorado Canyon, they were the backup jet but saw the returning F-111’s, minus two aircraft, one shot down and another diverted, returning from the longest bombing mission in history to date. But it was on the second day of flying, they took their aircraft into Libya at the precise moment Muammar Gaddafi was addressing his people. Later Brian would be watching the news and on the TV as the double sonic booms of Brian and Walt’s jet echoed across the dais. Brian later told me he was screaming at the TV in delight of their handiwork, making the Libyan strongman scramble from the stage.

Brian would retire from the Air Force after twenty years, all in flying assignments except for his year of recovery in hospitals. His passion for writing and photography continued but he became most notable as an incredible guest speaker. During his Air Force career, he often spoke to aviation audiences regarding his view of safety, especially the need to wear your equipment properly. He spoke passionately of the need to wear flight gloves as he was in the hospital with two helicopter pilots who experienced a terrible cockpit fire during which their hands were horribly burned and their anguish was tough to listen to each night. His second speech topic is what it was like to be a patient that gripped medical professionals as he recounted the view of the one on the operating table. He recounted that before one major surgery, he asked an orderly to mark on his body “cut here” or “fold back here” and when the doctors and nurses came into the room, he heard them laugh and that’s when he knew these unknown people behind the masks were human after all.

But it was his passion for flying the SR-71 that would resonate with people from all walks of life. Coupled with his incredible photographs that also accompany two of his books, he would regale audiences with his stories of flying the world’s most iconic jet and several times a year, retired Colonel Walter Watson would join Brian’s “Spy Pilot Chronicles” to make the stories even more compelling. There is a section told within the talk often called the “speed check” that is known as one of the most famous aviation stories ever told and if you haven’t seen it, look for it on the web with Brian telling the story. Some deride that story as made up. Bullshit. He told me that story after it happened, and I know it’s true.

Brian in the patriotic shirt he and Walt wore at their talks.

On Saturday May 20, 2023, Brian was giving his talk to a group supporting veterans’ causes in Reno Nevada and as he completed the talk, he reportedly collapsed from a massive heart attack. Despite multiple doctors on the scene and the ambulance crew immediately treating him, the Sled Driver finally flew West. It’s difficult for me to write this story as events from our friendship continually flood over me. His laugh, his advice, his counsel, everything about the man was special. He touched millions of people through his teaching as an instructor pilot, his incredible piloting skill that enthralled airshow goers, his unbelievable photography and writing, and his speeches that captivated audiences.

He was a patriot who loved the United States of America. But most importantly, Brian was an incredible friend and son and brother. He touched so many of us with his humor, knowledge, skills, and advice. He is mourned but all who knew him are better for it. His spirit will carry on.

Brian Shul and Edward Pernotto at Mildenhall Air Base shortly after Shul pinned the wings on “Otto”. (image credit: Edward Pernotto)

While some traits of the legendary pilot are somehow controversial and debated online these days with someone claiming he was a “rogue pilot” and made up some of his stories, and others saying that the vast majority of negativity towards him was pure jealousy), it’s pretty evident that Brian Shul had a remarkable career in military aviation, often times at the leading edge of development and performance. He went on to relate his astounding experiences with a voice and enthusiasm that was infectious. It is impossible to calculate the number of current airmen serving who were inspired to join the Air Force by Brian Shul, and that legacy, along with his warmth, enthusiasm and humility, is a legacy that will carry his story at Mach 3+ into the future forever.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.
About Tom Demerly
Tom Demerly is a feature writer, journalist, photographer and editorialist who has written articles that are published around the world on TheAviationist.com, TACAIRNET.com, Outside magazine, Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, The Dearborn Press & Guide, National Interest, Russia’s government media outlet Sputnik, and many other publications. Demerly studied journalism at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan. Tom Demerly served in an intelligence gathering unit as a member of the U.S. Army and Michigan National Guard. His military experience includes being Honor Graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Georgia (Cycle C-6-1) and as a Scout Observer in a reconnaissance unit, Company “F”, 425th INF (RANGER/AIRBORNE), Long Range Surveillance Unit (LRSU). Demerly is an experienced parachutist, holds advanced SCUBA certifications, has climbed the highest mountains on three continents and visited all seven continents and has flown several types of light aircraft.