Brian Shul in the cockpit of the SR-71 Blackbird
|Allegiance||United States of America|
United States Air Force
|Years of service||1970 - 1990|
|Other work||Aerial photographer|
Brian Shul (born 1948), is a Vietnam War-era attack pilot and a retired major in the United States Air Force (USAF). He flew 212 combat missions and was shot down near the end of the war. He was so badly burned that he was given next to no chance to live. Surviving, he returned to full flight status, flying the SR-71 Blackbird. Major Brian Shul completed a 20-year career in the Air Force. He has written four books on aviation and runs a photo studio in Marysville, California.
Brian Shul was born in Quantico, Virginia, in 1948. He graduated from Radford High School in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1966 and from East Carolina University in 1970 with a degree in History. That same year he joined the Air Force and attended pilot training at Reese AFB in Texas.
Shul served as a Foreign Air Advisor in the Vietnam War, flying 212 close air support missions in conjunction with Air America. Near the end of all hostilities, his AT-28 aircraft was shot down near the Cambodian border. Unable to eject from the aircraft, Shul was forced to crash land into the jungle. After surviving, he suffered severe burns in the ensuing fireball. Crawling from the burning wreckage, and surviving in hostile territory with extensive wounds for more than a day, he was able to find the most secure location to camouflage himself. There was a point, due to his location, he had patrolling guards within a few yards distance- he was unsure of his judgement and thought they were hallucinations.
The rescue mission was not immediate due to his location having dense enemy numbers, foliage that was even worse for aerial support, and the fact that he could not stay near the crash site. With a combination of resources, his general area was later located and confirmed that there was no body at the crash site. Upon activating his radio, confirming his identity and his general location- so as to prevent enemy attack, although even Shul was not sure exactly where he was, but knew a rough grid. This initiated an aerial search of the area till his exact location was determined by his confirmation of American aircraft in view. The only timely way to recover Shul would be helicopter, and it would likely be under fire, considering those facts along with the recovery plan allocating more than usual time on the ground due to his extensive burns, complex location with enemies, and the fact that he was not sure exactly where he was, the recovery team choice was critical and easy. Conventional forces, such as typical Army Infantry and Medics would not do- the time for them to plan the scenarios that could occur, combined with the larger risk on Shul's and their own lives due to lack of experience, variety of techniques, skills, equipment, and close air integration gave an operation employing small unit tactics with high flexibility in all areas.
Air Force Special Operations Command Pararescue teams were the best choice in this situation, given the team's: post-paramedic medical and surgical skills, battlefield trauma expertise and unique crash injury knowledge; helicopter operations skills for exfiltration including aircrew skills (among other methods, but since they had to search first, helicopters were used to insert the teams); infiltration methods could be kept flexible to suit any need; the small unit tactics used by these teams were similar to Naval and Army SOF small unit tactics, except more specialized due to more technical duties and skillsets, but less of them overall. The above flexibility was necessary as until it would be confirmed that an all helicopter based rescue was safest or possible- a variety of others could easily be implemented in the same pass such as parachuting, fast rope, river/coastal boating/SCUBA swimming combined with their small unit tactics, primarily of two different hostile situations: either a clandestine operation or primarily stealth operation, giving plenty of time to allow for setup for small arms fire as they recovered the target onto the helicopter; or the other mindset would involve enemies knowing the operator's presence before the operation or soon after it begins, larger weapons, explosives and different tactics all together would be employed. Beyond that, the missions would all be as similar as planning could do on paper, changing on depending on terrain/weather, type of personnel recovered, and known intelligence or operator clandestine scouts or recon/sniper nests, so the flexibility and mission planning could be conducted very quickly.
This ability was paramount with Shul's recovery. Low helicopter passes provided Shul with his exact location, plus operators now knew enemy count, location, and firepower. Since Shul was close to the enemy and they had a better idea where he was, an initial stealth mission turned into an openly hostile mission, so minor small arms fire near Shul occurred. As only patrols were within range and line of sight of the recovery team, they easily handled the patrol enemies with rifles while the surrounding larger groups of enemies or search parties were handled with heavy weapon outfitted operators or operators guiding close air support. Only minutes were had permissible to plan and execute their operation. After, air to ground small arms fire in return to enemy attacks, one helicopter landed and dispatched the team. Shul was identified and confirmed visually and verbally to be the target, he was given field medical treatment ensuring that their movement of him would not result in further wounds, to seal open tissue for long term concern, treat immediate needs while establishing dual IVs, and other basic medical access/support, check and secure all sensitive equipment and documents, and finally be safely loaded onto the aircraft. Once recovered and airborne, further medical treatment was provided while also doing aircraft system checks, landing at an appropriately staffed base. No American casualties occurred.
He was evacuated to a military hospital in Okinawa where he was thought to have suffered terminal burns. Barely surviving 2 months of intensive care, in 1974 he was flown to the Institute of Surgical Research at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. During the following year, he underwent 15 major operations. During this time he was told by physicians that he’d never fly again and was lucky to be alive. Months of physical therapy followed, enabling Shul to eventually pass a flight physical and return to active flying duty.
Two days after being released from the hospital, Brian was back flying Air Force fighter jet aircraft. He went on to fly the A-7D, and was then selected to be a part of the first operational A-10 squadron at Myrtle Beach, SC, where he was on the first A-10 air show demonstration team. After a tour as an A-10 Instructor Pilot at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, he went on to instruct at the Air Force’s Fighter Lead-In School as the Chief of Air-to-Ground Academics. As a final assignment in his career, Shul volunteered for and was selected to fly the SR-71. This assignment required an astronaut type physical just to qualify, and Shul passed with no waivers. Shul’s comeback story from lying near dead in the jungle of Southeast Asia, to later flying the world’s fastest, highest flying jet, has been the subject of numerous magazine articles. Shul also made an Air Force safety video titled "Sierra Hotel" (with the title referring to the phonetic alphabet code for the military aviator slang expletive "Shit Hot") where he described his crash ordeal in explicit detail in order to motivate other USAF pilots to be more safety conscious and teaching them how to better survive such incidents.
After 20 years and 5000 hours in fighter jets, Shul retired from the Air Force in 1990 and went on to pursue his writing and photographic interests. In addition to running his own photo studio in northern California, he has authored seven books on flying and flight photography. His first two books (Sled Driver: Flying The World's Fastest Jet and The Untouchables) are about flying the SR-71 Blackbird and give the reader a first-hand account of being in the cockpit of the world’s fastest jet. Shul’s third and fourth books are about America’s air demonstration teams, the Navy Blue Angels, in Blue Angels: A Portrait of Gold, and the Air Force Thunderbirds, in Summer Thunder and contain aerial images which take the reader into the dynamic formations of these world famous teams. In 1997, Shul released his fifth book, Eagle Eyes : Action Photography from the Cutting Edge, which is a collection of his in-flight photos. He has also released special, revised editions of both Sled Driver and The Untouchables.
Shul has spoken at numerous functions nationwide on his experiences. Shul has also been honored as an Outstanding Alumnus from East Carolina University. He owns Gallery One, a photo studio in northern California, and divides his time between writing, photography, public speaking, and backpacking in the high Sierra.
- Shul, Brian (1994). Sled Driver: Flying The World's Fastest Jet. Lickle Pub Inc. p. 151. ISBN 0929823087.
- Shul, Brian (1994). The Untouchables. Mach One. p. 216. ISBN 0929823125.
- Shul, Brian (1994). Blue Angels: A Portrait of Gold. Mach One. p. 216. ISBN 0929823400.
- Shul, Brian (1994). Summer Thunder. Lickle Pub Inc. p. 160. ISBN 0929823133.
- Shul, Brian (1997). Eagle Eyes : Action Photography from the Cutting Edge--The Best of the Best from the First Decade of Mach 1. Mach One. p. 180. ISBN 0929823230.
- Official website
- Shul, Brian (December 1, 2009). "Speed Is Life: Never underestimate the importance of an instrument cross-check". Plane & Pilot.