“‘Center, Aspen 20, you got a ground speed readout for us?’ There was a longer than normal pause … ‘Aspen, I show 1,942 knots,’” “Sled Driver” Brian Shul, SR-71 Blackbird pilot.
As every aviation geek knows, legendary “Sled Driver” Brian Shul passed away in the night of May 20, 2023 in Reno, Nevada, at age 75, of a cardiac arrest while giving a speech about his beloved SR-71 Blackbird.
This one is for you Brian!
From attack pilot in the US Air Force (USAF) to extraordinary aviator of the world’s fastest plane, the SR-71, the story of Brian Shul is awe-inspiring. While flying secret ops toward the end of the Vietnam War, Shul was shot down near the Cambodian border. Surviving the initial impact of crash landing in the jungle, Shul was trapped inside a fiery cockpit. Just as his helmet visor began to melt, he managed to free himself and crawl, severely burned, from the flaming wreckage. A Special Operations Pararescue team extracted the downed pilot by helicopter from hostile territory, and evacuated him to a military hospital where he was not expected to survive his burns. One year and 15 surgeries later, Shul astonished the military world by overcoming his traumatic injuries and passing every flight physical demanded of him in order to fly again. After flying fighter jets for 10 years, he applied to pilot the legendary SR-71 Blackbird Mach 3+ spy plane.
As Shul recalls in his book Sled Driver, the Blackbird wasn’t an easy plane to fly. “There were a lot of things we couldn’t do in an SR-71, but we were the fastest guys on the block and loved reminding our fellow aviators of this fact. People often asked us if, because of this fact, it was fun to fly the jet. Fun would not be the first word I would use to describe flying this plane—intense, maybe, even cerebral.”
However according to Shul “there was one day in our Sled experience when we would have to say that it was pure fun to be the fastest guys out there, at least for a moment.
I’ll always remember a certain radio exchange that occurred one day as Walt (my back-seater) and I were screaming across Southern California 13 miles high.
We were monitoring various radio transmissions from other aircraft as we entered Los Angeles airspace.
Though they didn’t really control us, they did monitor our movement across their scope.
I heard a Cessna ask for a readout of its ground speed.
’90 knots’ Center replied.
Moments later,a Twin Beech required the same.
‘120 knots,’ Center answered.
We weren’t the only ones proud of our ground speed that day…as almost instantly an F-18 smugly transmitted, ‘Ah, Center, Dusty 52 requests ground speed readout.’
There was a slight pause, then the response, ‘620 knots on the ground, Dusty.’
Another silent pause.
As I was thinking to myself how ripe a situation this was, I heard a familiar click of a radio transmission coming from my back-seater. It was at that precise moment I realized Walt and I had become a real crew, for we were both thinking in unison.
‘Center, Aspen 20, you got a ground speed readout for us?’
There was a longer than normal pause … ‘Aspen, I show 1,942 knots.’
No further inquiries were heard on that frequency.”
In the following video, taken at Hiller Aviation Museum, San Carlos Airport, San Carlos, CA, Major Brian Shul relays the story behind this famed ground speed check.
Photo credit: Brian Shul / U.S. Air Force, Brian Shul via Sleddriver.com, Ball Watch and Captain Sam Brown