Air Force veteran to IT: ‘Live your dreams’

Retired Major in the United States Air Force inspires IT audience with stories of survival, perseverance, and flying the world’s fastest jet.

Brian Shul

Retired Air Force Major Brian Shul isn't an IT expert, but his story of survival and recovery captivated the IT audience at a national management conference.

A fighter pilot during Vietnam, Shul flew 212 combat missions. His AT-28 aircraft was shot down near the Cambodian border as the war was ending, and Shul was forced to crash land into the jungle. Rescued by a Special Forces team, Shul was so badly burned that he wasn't expected to survive. He nearly didn’t.

After two months in a military hospital in Okinawa, he was flown in 1974 to the Institute of Surgical Research at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where he underwent 15 operations. He was told he'd never again fly. Two years later, after being released from the hospital, Shul passed a flight physical and returned to active duty flying Air Force fighter jet aircraft.

Shul went on to become one of only 92 pilots to fly the SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft, the world’s fastest jet. This assignment – the final in his Air Force career -- required an astronaut-type physical just to qualify, and he passed with no waivers.

Shul was a keynote speaker at last week’s SIMposium, the annual meeting of the Society for Information Management. His talk was accompanied by photos he took during his flying career and after retirement, when he became a writer and nature photographer. (He owns Gallery One, a photo studio in northern California.)

Here are just a handful of the highlights of his incredible comeback story.

On nearly giving up:

“I saw my body go from 185 pounds of muscle and steel to 119 pounds of blood and gauze.”

“Eventually I quit trying. That’s a horrible thing for me to admit to audiences. But I’d be lying to you if I said I was brave and courageous. I was screaming and cursing my attendants and crying and praying to God every night, ‘please just end this.’”

On his turning point:

Shul couldn't keep down any food, and doctors warned him that they wouldn't be able to save him if he didn't start eating. Two things happened then: He heard the sounds of kids playing soccer on a nearby field and realized how much he’d love to be able to move his legs and kick a soccer ball; and he heard Judy Garland singing ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ on the radio.

“I heard the words of that song for the first time. They penetrated my brain sharper than any scalpel they were using on me. … I made a choice, right in that moment. I said I am going to try to eat tomorrow. I had a new attitude. I changed my whole perspective. Isn't it funny how the smallest change in attitude in our lives can affect the greatest part of the rest of our life?”

On his rebirth:

Born in 1948, Shul today measures his age by his rebirth: the day he walked out of the military hospital. By that measure, Shul was 12 years old when he began flying the the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane.

“I’m here today because I changed my attitude, I changed direction, and I changed my whole thought process. I tell people I’m 41 years old today. I’m 41 years old because I’ve had 41 extra years out of the hospital. A second life, a second chance that I would have never had. And so many young men never got a second chance coming home from that war. Did you know when you look at the Vietnam wall in Washington, D.C., 39,000 of those names were under 21 years old? Thirty-nine thousand. They never got to come back and do any of the things that I got to do. Those numbers haunt me.”

On what he learned:

“I learned: never miss your passion in life. Don’t miss one day. It’s a miracle and guaranteed to no one. I learned that life is short and it’s uncertain. At 25 years old, I had learned that lesson dramatically. I learned that don’t you dare miss a moment of doing the things that make you feel like getting up every morning.”

"I also found out that there’s a lot of fear people in the world. I call them ‘no’ people. You all know this in your business because you deal with them all the time. When you have a great, innovative idea and you have a great plan, they're going to explain to you why this is not going to work. And if they had just taken that energy that they took in trying to thwart you and tried to help you, it could have already been done.”

On flying the SR-71 Blackbird:

"This was your spy plane for 26 years. This was the plane that formed the foreign policy of this nation from the Vietnam War to the Gulf War. For 26 years this plane served six presidents and was collecting reconnaissance data worldwide. The highest flying, fastest jet ever built. Two thousand miles an hour. At 90,000 feet I could read your name tag if you were standing outside."

sr71 Brian Shul

"Built in 1962. The first flight of the reconnaissance version was 1964. You're sitting here today in 2014, and it still holds every speed and altitude record. It has never been surpassed."

"Over 4,500 missiles were fired at this airplane in 26 years. Not one -- not one piece of one -- has every hit."

"The pictures that you're looking at today represent the world’s rarest collection of Blackbird photographs. Nobody else in the whole world has them, because only a 12-year-old has ever carried a camera."

On the runway photo (pictured at top of page):

"I didn't know what the word 'aperature' meant. One day we're at the mobile car, and the Colonel's looking at me, and he looks at my camera on the seat there, and he says, 'you know you're not supposed to have that out here.' And as a 12-year-old, I said, 'who me? What? My camera? Yeah, I guess I forgot I brought it...'

"The jet was right up as you see on a gloomy day in England, just beautiful lighting on the airplane, and I said, 'boy, you know, that would make a great picture for the wall of your office, Sir.' He looked at me and he said, 'you got 10 seconds.' I ran out of that car, put my knee down on the center line of that runway and tried to figure out that silly zoom lens that we had back in those days.”

“That's a remarkable picture. People would think that's a photographer who knows what he's doing. I did not. That is a photographer who was there. And not afraid. And doing his passion, living his life.”

On why he took pictures:

“On my days off, I would ask to go up on the tanker [that would refuel the SR-71]. I would say, 'I just want to go with my camera, sit with the boom operator, maybe get a picture. This is so cool. This is the greatest thing I've ever done in my whole life.' You know when you're 12, you feel like that. And the rest of the guys would say, 'why would you go on that barf bucket of a tanker all day and fly backwards with the boom and get airsick just to get a picture? You already have one. It's so much trouble. It's such a pain to do it.'"

"I'd look at them and think, pain to do it? Trouble and pain is sitting in a burn ward where they're ripping skin off one end of your body to slap it on the other end and have to sew it up, and you have to sit under a heat lamp all day so you can dry all the skin. That's pain. This is living. This is a joy. We're the only guys in the world who get to be around this and can do it. How could you miss it?"

"It's amazing what happens when passion, and attitude, and positive energy collide. It's a supernova."

On his favorite missions:

"People always ask me what my favorite missions were. I have several. One was over the coast of Vietnam. We got to go right back over the spot where I was shot down 12 years earlier. Don't think we didn't lay down some sonic boom that day, blow some trees down from 18 miles high."

On retiring:

"People say, 'well, that had to the greatest chapter of your life, bud.' And I say, 'yeah, well, maybe number two. Number one was about a 30-second chapter. That's how long it took to walk down that long concrete row of steps coming out of Fort Sam Houston’s military burn center. I got to walk out of there on my own two legs, and there was a little blue car waiting at the bottom, and it was taking me back to the Air Force to have another chance at life. I was two years old, but I was ready to go."

"Isn't that all we can ask for in life? The opportunity. There was no guarantee I would pass physicals, that I'd still fly well, or that I'd get any of these assignments. No guarantee at all. Who has a guarantee? We don't have a guarantee we're going to be here tomorrow. But I had the opportunity. And that's the opportunity I don't want people to miss. When the miracle of every day comes around, we can't take it for granted. The thing we do when we say we’re making a living -- are we really living when we’re doing it?”

On his writing and photography:

After 20 years and 5,000 hours in fighter jets, Shul retired from the Air Force in 1990. He went on to pursue his writing and photographic interests. He has written five books on flying, for which he did all the writing and photography. His first two books are about flying the SR-71 Blackbird. His third and fourth books are about America's air demonstration teams, the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy Blue Angels. His fifth book is a special remake of his original SR-71 book, titled Sled Driver.

"All of a sudden, doors starting opening for me in exactly the way that I wanted them to. I didn't want to fly for airlines. Last I checked they didn't do any close formation barrel rolls or fly through the Grand Canyon, so that was out. I wanted to pursue writing and flying."

dsc5142 Brian Shul

"So what do retired fighter pilots -- Commie-fighting, combat-hardened fighter pilots -- do after retirement? I shoot pansies. I'm very proud of that. I'm opening a gallery of my photography in California. We've been working on it for seven years.”

"It's something that centers me in the universe. It went from being something I did to being who I am."

On no longer flying:

“I had a little over 20 years of flying. Five thousand hours of sheer excitement, fear and near death. Almost killed myself about 100 times. And I was able to walk away from it because I did it fully. When people don't do the thing fully, they look back. Many of my airline buddies are always looking back, going 'remember when we used to...' I don't say that. I say, 'yeah, I did it. Now I'm going forward, doing other things.'"

“Today I'm a nature photographer, something I had always been doing on weekends. I find that walking across the county I used to zoom across is quite an experience. As a pilot, I have become enamored with nature’s fliers, and I have quite a collection of bird photography. A simple seagull that we would never pay attention to, when looked at closely, has the most incredible elliptical wing."

dsc 2202 Brian Shul

"The countenance of a bald eagle is so dramatic it became the symbol of the greatest nation on earth. You cannot take your eyes off a bald eagle when you see one in the wild."

In closing:

“Life is short. Life is uncertain. Live your dreams.”

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