The Indy 500 ran this past weekend, one of the oldest motorsports events in the world. It was won by Takuma Sato and his name will go on the great trophy which commemorates this event, as it should. Being the first guy across the line after 500 miles in a fuel-injected go-kart is something deserving of a trophy.
(It’d be easy enough here to go into a long soliloquy about a Honda driven by a Japanese driver winning this event, but we have bigger fish to fry.)
Takuma Sato’s name is recorded. Good. It’s possible, if not likely, you’ve heard his name before reading it here. But what do you know about Brian Shul?
Shul is someone whose name must be recorded.
Brian Shul is a pilot, retired from the Air Force as a general after a long career. He has 212 combat missions, beginning with his 1970 enlistment in the service, and was shot down on one of his last missions, from the sky over Vietnam.
Shul flew close air support, more-or-less the crop dusting of air combat. You keep your plane in close to the battle, firing or dropping whatever it takes to assure combat victory. He was flying a type of plane typical at the time which used a piston engine, which means it used gasoline - high-performance military grade aviation gasoline - to power it, gallons of the stuff. And when he plane got hit by enemy fire it was a flaming mess. He was close to the ground and there was no chance to eject, he rode the fireball in. He lived, but was burnt, badly.
Worse, it was Vietnam. Jungle foliage and enemy troops and they couldn’t get a rescue team after him right away. He got away from the airplane (imagine the pain) and hid, enemy patrols, at times, yards away. In time, with lots of helicopters, specially trained rescue troops and lots of work the Air Force was able to get him out of the jungle and out of enemy hands (without any further loss of American life). It didn’t end there, the burns were such he spent two months in an Okinawa hospital in intensive care, then was transferred stateside. There, military doctors performed 15 surgeries over the next year, bringing him back to shape.
He would never, he was assured, fly again. The idea of his passing a flight physical after being so horribly burned and having gone through all those surgeries was out of the question. It was 1974. This was the era of post-Vietnamization, the draft was over and in a few years Saigon would fall. For that brief period the Air Force had more pilots than it needed. Shul, recovering in the hospital, began taking physical therapy, as would be expected of someone with his history.
Two months after hospital release he was back flying jet fighter bombers (so much for “never fly again”), then soon selected to head the Air Forces first A-10 squadron (close air support now being done by jets with much less flammable fuel and steel tubs around the cockpit). In time he headed a airshow demonstration team for the A-10. (Not the time or space to get into it here, but the A-10 remains a much revered high performance close air support aircraft.)
He wasn’t done.
As the career went on he taught other pilots, of course, but then volunteered for SR-71 duty.
The SR-71 remains the - the - airplane for pilots who want to go high and fast. In the time before spy satellites and geosynchronous orbits supplying battlefield information, it was the SR-71, flying at the very outer reaches of the earth’s atmosphere, which was the eye in the sky, a spy plane. One had to, in order to qualify to be trained to fly such a beast, pass the flight physical for an astronaut in order to qualify.
Shul qualified, passing the physical with no waivers. He went on to fly [classified] missions over [classified] hours in the machine, retiring from the Air Force after 20 years with over 2,000 hours spent in the cockpits of combat airplanes. He has a photography studio now, out in California, and writes books and articles about flying, including about flying higher and faster than most people can even imagine.
And most of us don’t know his name.
We humans, we are capable of amazing things. We can go from crawling in a jungle, escaping a determined enemy, burns, weather endless surgeries, to - after being told flying was off the table - flying higher and faster in the very rarest outer reaches of earth’s atmosphere.