A Superhero Lived Amongst Us

Dressed in his usual office attire, which we mere mortals might recognize as a space suit, SR-71 pilot Brian Shul deftly coaxed the throttles forward... the titanium hinge in his left pinkie performing as the surgeons had promised 12 years earlier. The 107-foot long jet rolled across the vastness of Beale AFB until arriving at its single runway... the nose of the Cold War spy plane swinging onto course, confirming its precise location by checking the position of up to 32 different stars... in broad daylight. 

A firmer push lifts the throttles over a detent into afterburner, initiating a small squirt of tri-ethyl-borane into each engine, awakening the beasts that would eventually propel Brian and his Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO) Walter Watson, to 90,000 feet at a velocity over 3 times the speed of sound.

Although faster than a speeding bullet, Brian promised there was no red cape under his spacesuit. I wasn't so sure. 
Our first meeting was across a table at a 1991 book show in Los Angeles. Having read my advanced review copy of "Sled Driver" straight through in one 3-hour sitting, I was eager to meet the man described on the inside book flap: 

Severely burned in the wreckage after being shot down during the Vietnam conflict. Medivac'd with little chance of survival. Was told he would never fly again. Spent one year in military hospitals, enduring 15 major operations, before returning to active flying duty. Passed the astronaut physical required to fly the SR-71 spy plane, with one of the highest recorded scores ever. (Are we SURE there wasn't a red cape?) 
Author Cory Crowell and Brian, Edwards Air Force Base, 1999
"Hey, you're the guy from San Diego! What did you think of the book?" I looked him in the eye while shaking his scarred and contorted hand, taking in the totalïty of his horrific burn injuries. I could easily recognize where his helmet and goggles had protected his eyes from the flames... and how the inferno had ravaged the entire bottom portion of his face... eventually requiring surgeons to cut his fused lips apart in order to feed him.
"Why don't you come to our hotel tonight and join us for dinner? We'll meet by the pool around 6."
I arrived at the appointed hour, strolled out to the pool area but did not see Brian. "Oh, there you are!" came the soon-to-be-familiar voice from behind me. Brian was sunbathing on a chaise lounge, wearing only swim trunks. "The sun feels so good on my scar tissue, I just had to lay out for a few minutes." I looked down in awe at the scarecrow-like patchwork of skin grafts criss-crossing his entire body, from head to toe... evidence of those 15 trips under the scalpel. And a little switch flicked off inside of me... 'Good Lord. If HE's okay with this...? What the heck is MY problem?" And that was the last thought I ever had about Brian's "hi-viz" exterior. I reached down, took his hand and pulled him upright. "I hope you're not wearing that to the Spaghetti Factory!" 
In the following years, Brian would come to my museum numerous times for book signings... and I would return the favor by following him around the country, helping him in his airshow booth. During that time, Brian flew with BOTH the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy's Blue Angels, in order to produce anniversary books on their teams.... the only author/photographer ever to earn that privilege.

And later, after the mysterious but retired SR-71 was somewhat declassified, he wrote a 4th book with his RSO, Walter, detailing their missions over Libya for President Reagan... and "giving away some secrets" about the Blackbird.
Also during this period, Brian grew some roots. "I'm opening up a gallery next year, to display my photographs. But I don't want to be tied to it... I still need to spend my days hiking and doing my nature photography. I'm probably going to hire someone to run it for me. Someone I can trust. Someone who knows photography, my story, the SR, my books... and knows how to run a business by themselves. Someone like YOU."
OK, so I'd never be cut out to be Batman's partner Robin. But I could definitely be Alfred the Butler... running things from the background. So, goodbye San Diego. Hello Marysville. 
Cory and Brian - Nellis Air Force Base 2017
I must now bookend our 30+ year friendship between that story of my first look at the Sled Driver... and my last fleeting glimpse of him... on his way out the door to give his inspirational talk to a veteran's support group in Reno last month.  
I swear I saw him tucking in something red under his shirt...
There will be a public gathering of friends and family for a Celebration of Life for Brian,  Friday, June 30th, from 4-6PM,  At the Brick coffee house, 316 D Street, Marysville, CA.  All are welcome,  and encouraged to wear the "Red, White and Blue" that Brian loved wearing during his presentations.
Cory Crowell - Aviation Historian and former Curator with 34 years museum experience, and longtime friend of the Sled Driver. 


Leave a comment