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CFS 2019 Speaker Preview: Brian Shul

After suffering massive injuries and burns from being shot down over Cambodia during the Vietnam War, pilot Brian Shul found the will to live and to recover. But he was not expected to be able to fly again at all, let alone fly the fastest and, arguably, most exciting and awe-inspiring aircraft ever built, the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane.

It’s an extraordinary story, one which Brian tells with emotion and passion. He riveted and inspired the Communicating For Safety audience in 2018 and NATCA is very excited to welcome him back to the CFS stage this year. He is one of only 93 men in history to fly the SR-71. His amazing life has been marked by perseverance, fearlessness, and pursuing his passion.

The 71-year-old Vietnam War veteran and former attack pilot in the U.S. Air Force spoke at CFS 2018 about his illustrious career and the life lessons he’s learned. He flew 212 combat missions before he was shot down and was burned so badly that he was given almost no chance to live. He overcame his injuries, went through multiple surgeries, and eventually returned to full flight status, flying the SR-71 Blackbird. Major Shul completed a 20-year career in the Air Force. Out of all his life experiences, he left the audience with insight that he considers very valuable: “life is short and not certain; pursue your passion and live your dream,” he said.

Once Major Shul was able to return to the Air Force, he became a safety officer and constantly reminded his employees about their attitude, perspective and making choices. He said during his CFS remarks what he told his officers could also be applied to air traffic controllers. “Don’t be afraid to do something, anything, that you feel is out of the box,” he said. “You don’t have to be the most accomplished, the best, or the smartest.”

It’s been 20 years since the SR-71 made its final flight. Remarkably, many of its speed and altitude records are still intact. It flew at three and a half times the speed of sound and reached a maximum altitude of over 85,000 feet. Shul and his fellow Blackbird pilots had to wear space suits to handle those heights. And, as Shul noted in his 2018 remarks, none of the 32 Blackbirds built was ever shot down.

Shul is also an experienced, accomplished photographer and delights his audiences with stories of how he was able to take photos of the SR-71, which obviously was a delicate and challenging undertaking. His books have featured these stunning photographs, including Sled Driver: Flying the World’s Fastest Jet.

As Major Shul ended his talk at CFS 2018, he thanked the controllers for all that they do. “Thank you for being air traffic controllers. Whether you realize it or not, you are that still, calm voice when things get sketchy for pilots. What a treat for me to finally address you and thank you.”

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