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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Speed Is Life

Never underestimate the importance of an instrument cross-check

Meanwhile, below, the cadet commander had taken the cadets up on the catwalk of the tower in order to get a prime view of the flypast. It was a quiet, still day with no wind and partial gray overcast. Walter continued to give me indications that the field should be below us, but in the overcast and haze, I couldn’t see it. The longer we continued to peer out the window and circle, the slower we got. With our power back, the awaiting cadets heard nothing. I must have had good instructors in my flying career, as something told me I better cross-check the gauges. As I noticed the airspeed indicator slide below 160 knots, my heart stopped and my adrenalin-filled left hand pushed two throttles full forward. At this point, we weren’t really flying, but were falling in a slight bank. Just at the moment that both afterburners lit with a thunderous roar of flame (and what a joyous feeling that was), the aircraft fell into full view of the shocked observers on the tower. Shattering the still quiet of that morning, they now had 107 feet of fire-breathing titanium in their face as the plane leveled and accelerated, in full burner, on the tower side of the infield, closer than expected, maintaining what could only be described as some sort of ultimate knife-edge pass.

Quickly reaching the field boundary, we proceeded back to Mildenhall without incident. We didn’t say a word for those next 14 minutes. After landing, our commander greeted us, and we were both certain he was reaching for our wings. Instead, he heartily shook our hands and said the commander had told him it was the greatest SR-71 flypast he had ever seen, especially how we had surprised them with such a precise maneuver that could only be described as breathtaking. He said that some of the cadet’s hats were blown off and the sight of the planform of the plane in full afterburner dropping right in front of them was unbelievable. Walt and I both understood the concept of “breathtaking” very well that morning, and sheepishly replied that they were just excited to see our low approach.

As we retired to the equipment room to change from space suits to flight suits, we just sat there—we hadn’t spoken a word since “the pass.” Finally, Walter looked at me and said, “One hundred fifty-six knots. What did you see?” Trying to find my voice, I stammered, “One hundred fifty-two.” We sat in silence for a moment. Then Walt said, “Don’t ever do that to me again!” And I never did.

A year later, Walter and I were having lunch in the Mildenhall Officer’s Club, and overheard an officer talking to some cadets about an SR-71 flypast that he had seen one day. Of course, by now the story included kids falling off the tower and screaming as the heat of the jet singed their eyebrows. Noticing our HABU patches, as we stood there with lunch trays in our hands, he asked us to verify to the cadets that such a thing had occurred. Walt just shook his head and said, “It was probably just a routine low approach; they’re pretty impressive in that plane.” Impressive indeed.

Little did I realize after relaying this experience to my audience that day that it would become one of the most popular and most requested stories. It’s ironic that people are interested in how slow the world’s fastest jet can fly. Regardless of your speed, however, it’s always a good idea to keep that cross-check up...and keep your Mach up, too.

Brian Shul spent 20 years as an Air Force fighter pilot, and now is a popular keynote speaker. Shot down in Vietnam, he spent one year in a burn ward. His comeback story culminated with flying the SR-71, which he detailed inSled Driver. Brian also is known for his nature photography, which is on display at Gallery One in California.

1 Comment

  1. I was stationed at Beale AFB, home of both the SR-71 and the U-2, for eleven years as a U-2 mission planner. I had the pleasure of knowing both Brian Shul and Walt Watson, as well as most of the other SR-71 and U-2 crew members. Truly, that is a fraternity of aviators unlike any other. Brian Shul stood out as a heroic guy who survived an F-4 "crash and burn" in Vietnam to not only walk again, but to fly the world's hottest airplane in hot spots around the world. Brian is well known here in the Northern California area, and I last saw him at the California Capital Air Show at Mather Airfield in the Sacramento suburbs a year ago, selling his books and photography. Thanks for passing on his "low pass" story- that was a new one on me, but very believable.

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