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Former spy plane pilot to share story of survival, determination

Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Brian Shul, who overcame life-threatening injuries to become the pilot of the fastest plane in history, will be the keynote speaker at the Ohio Attorney General’s 2017 Law Enforcement Conference.
The event, with the theme “Protecting Ohio: Cybersecurity,” will offer 30 workshops on topics ranging from invisible wireless threats to dealing with hometown hackers and feature speeches by Blue Courage founder Michael Nila and motivational speaker Paul Butler.

“The Internet has created new opportunities, but it’s also brought new risks,” said Ohio Attorney General DeWine about the theme. “Law enforcement officers must be prepared to locate, investigate, and bring criminals to justice wherever they are — even online.”

The conference, set for Oct. 11-12 at the Hyatt Regency Columbus, is designed to provide an abundance of information on cyber-related topics and offer encouragement to attendees, too.

Shul, who is to address the crowd at noon on Oct. 11 in the Regency Ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Columbus, will talk about living fearlessly and embracing opportunities.
As an Air Force fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, Shul was shot down and severely burned in the crash. Initially given up for dead, he was finally rescued and spent a year in various hospitals.

Shul endured 15 surgeries and was told his flying days were over, but he refused to give up.

“The pinnacle for me was the day I was able to walk out of the hospital and realized I was given a second chance to go back to flying, and life in general, something that seemed like a very slim occurrence for so many months.”

He returned to active duty flying, became an airshow demonstration pilot, went on to become a Top Gun instructor, and culminated his Air Force career by flying the SR-71 Blackbird.

The spy plane, which has since been retired, could sustain speeds above Mach 3, with a so far unbroken manned-flight record. Flying the world’s fastest and highest flying aircraft required an astronaut physical, which Shul passed with no waivers. 

“Flying the SR-71 was not like anything else,” Shul said.  “It was at once, humbling, exciting, scary, and impressive — sometimes all at the same time.  But mostly it was very satisfying to know that you were performing a mission that was making a difference.”

Only 93 pilots ever flew the SR-71, and only one carried a camera with him: Shul. He spent seven years working with and photographing the aircraft. 

“I started carrying a small Instamatic camera when I got to pilot training,” he said. “I was enamored with jet aircraft and loved photographing them. As years went by, my equipment got better as did my ability to capture on film what I saw, felt, and wanted to share with people who would never sit in the cockpit as I did.”

Shul retired from the Air Force in 1990 to pursue a photography and writing career.

He has written five books on flying and owns a photo studio in California. He is currently working on an autobiography and plans to open a gallery of his nature photography.

The cover shot of his book Sled Driver displays his favorite photo so far. (“I’d like to think I haven’t taken my best photo yet,” he said.)

“This was the first picture I ever took from the back end of the tanker aircraft and truly did not know what I was doing from a photographic sense,” Shul said. “The weather was horrible, and I was only able to get three shots in the turbulence and dark skies.

“This shot was somewhat magical in the way the lighting worked, that I was able to frame the jet completely, focus, and get a picture that has stood the test of time and has now become the iconic image of the plane for many people around the world.”

“Some people thought it was so unique due to Photoshop retouching, but it wasn’t,” he said. “We didn’t even have Photoshop in those days. It was an original Kodachrome slide.”

Shul calls the image “total luck,” but said it reminds him that with enough effort, anything is possible.