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.”

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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.