It’s likely you’ve never heard of Major Brian Shul, a retired Air Force fighter pilot who recovered from a near catastrophic crash in the Vietnam War and went on to hold the distinction of flying the world’s fastest jet in a top-secret Cold War operation.

Brian died earlier this month at the age of 75. He was rightly hailed as a war hero and patriot, but his decorated life is also a grand reminder of the power of good parenting, the resiliency and indomitability of the human spirit – and the need for Christians to take risks in this culture.

First, let’s go back to the beginning.

Brian was born in Quantico, Virginia to Blanche and Victor Shul. Victor was a clarinetist and the director of the Marine Corps Band. In an oral history recorded several years ago, Brian said his mom and dad weren’t only great parents, but great people, too.

Speaking of his mother, he said, “She was the greatest mom ever and her mission in life was to raise those three kids and allow us to go our own way and pursue the careers we wanted to.”

Referring to his father, Brian said he was “highly respected” and taught his kids a lot about “taking pride in your work.” He said the older he got the more he admired his father.

Mark Twain once quipped that “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born – and the day you find out why.” For Brian, that second day occurred when he was just nine.

Brian’s dad wanted him to become a musician, but the youngster had his own dream that stemmed from an air show his mom and dad took him to at what is now called Joint Base Andrews. The Blue Angels and Thunderbird aircraft were performing – and the young boy was mesmerized.

“I’m like, ‘Whoa,’” he told the Museum of Flight. “It reached in, grabbed my soul, never let go.”

Familiar and comfortable with the Marine culture because of his father, he decided he wanted to fly for the Corps out of high school. But a recruiter told him to first get at least two years of community college. He then spoke with the Air Force, and they said he’d have to have a minimum of four years to be considered for pilot training. He decided he’d rather fly with an organization that required more than less.

Brian Shul wound up graduating from East Carolina University with a bachelor’s degree in history. He then enlisted in the Air Force, struggled to make the cut as a pilot, but squeaked by and earned his wings. He’d go on to fly 212 combat missions in Vietnam, concluding with a fiery crash near the Cambodian border. He was pulled out of the jungle by Special Forces and suffered major burns and injuries.

After the accident, despite the best advice from doctors, Brian set the audacious goal of getting back to flying. He’d later say it was his big and bold goal that helped him get through the pain and difficulty of the recovery.

It was the industrialist Andrew Carnegie who said, “If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes.”

That echoes the advice of Earl Nightingale, who once said, “People with goals succeed because they know where they’re going.”

Where Shul was going wasn’t just back into the cockpit of a plane, but into the SR-71 Blackbird, a Lockheed Martin spy aircraft that flew at Mach 3 and 85,000 feet. The plane was so fast that it could outrun missiles.

Looking back on his training and preparation, he would stress the importance of accepting risk in his life. He would tell the story of his flight instructor, who told him:

“Let me just tell you something,” the veteran pilot told the young flyers. “Every time you guys climb up this ladder the rest of your life, you risk everything you are, ever will be and ever have. Don’t ever forget that. As fun as it is, exciting as it is, and you love it – every day you walk up that ladder you risk everything.”

Few of us will fly spy planes, but as Christians, all of us should be climbing ladders every day. When it comes to serving the Lord, what are we risking? Or are we just trying to make it comfortably and safely to death?

Scripture regularly admonishes us to act boldly and courageously, and also to step out in faith. Solomon wrote, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

In this day and age, we might risk our reputation. We might risk our resources. We might risk our time. But we need to take smart and faith-inspired risks.

Major Brian Shul said all the good things that happened in his life were because “I was fearless enough to not fear failure …It’s a greater harm not to have tried.”

He then added,

“Life is what you make it, and it goes by really quick.”

As believers, we must pray and then respond to God’s call by taking principled action.


Photo from Shutterstock.