Although it was introduced way back in 1966, and retired from service a whopping eighteen years ago, the SR-71 Blackbird remains among the most popular military aircraft of all time — and for good reason. Despite its relative old age when compared to modern feats of aviation ingenuity like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or the F-22 Raptor, the SR-71 could still mop the floor with them in terms of top speed or operational ceiling. It even continues to inspire those who build America’s most advanced aircraft, with a whole new generation of engineers currently hard at work designing the SR-72, a potentially MACH 6 capable follow-up to the venerable Blackbird.
While the SR-71’s sleek looks, unusual shape, and impressive statistics can all be credited with its popularity, perhaps it’s stories like this, however, that truly launch the reconnaissance aircraft out of the realm of “cool” and into the category of “legendary.”
Air Force Major Brian Shul is a Vietnam era veteran with more than 212 combat missions to his name — the last of which resulted in him getting shot down and suffering traumatic burns that not only threatened to end his career, but his very life. Shul was able to make a full recovery, however, and would go on to become a test pilot for the legendary SR-71 before retiring from the Air Force after 20 years of service.
In a speech he gave in Chico, California, back in 2001, Shul explained how he came to find himself in the pilot’s seat of what remains, to this day, to be the fastest aircraft ever in production after many men would have simply died.
“I made that choice a long time ago and flew the jets. I was fortunate to live my dream, and then some. I survived something I shouldn’t have, and today, tell people that I am 28-years-old, as it has been that long since I was released from the hospital.” He told the crowd.
“It was like I received a second life, and in the past 28 years, I have gotten to see and do much, so much that I would not have thought possible. Returning to fly jets in the Air Force, flying the SR-71 on spy missions, spending a year with the Blue Angels, running my own photo studio… and so much more.”
Shul has become a professional key-note speaker in the years since his retirement in 1990, often peppering his stories about military service and his love for his country with some of the lighter moments he experienced as a combat and test pilot. Perhaps the best of those stories is the, now legendary, tale of the ground speed check: wherein a number of pilots, flying different aircraft, call in to air traffic control to request a readout of their speed.
The radio traffic quickly turns into a bit of a competition, with a number of pilots, including one in a Navy F/A-18 Hornet, requesting their speed readouts one after another, none of whom seem to be aware that the fastest aircraft in history is zooming across their airspace, high overhead.
Major Shul can fill in the rest.
(Feature photo provided by Getty Images)