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By Author - Brian Shul



Every author hopes that his book is a success, but I could have never predicted the widespread popularity of my first book, Sled Driver, in 1992. Perhaps it was because of the original photos, or the mystique of the plane it honored, or maybe the first-person non-technical style of writing. I rather think it was a bit of all three. But for whatever reason, my simple account of what it was like to fly the SR-71 went on to become the most coveted of all the Blackbird books out there for nearly 10 years.


I originally wrote the book in 1991 as a tribute to a magnificent aircraft that I had been privileged enough to fly. I didn’t even own a computer when I wrote Sled Driver, and wrote the book, page by page, on a small word processor. I didn’t expect to sell the book in large numbers, and wasn’t even sure that very many people would want to read it, I just felt compelled to write it. As it was my first book, I had nothing to fall back on for experience in knowing where to say more, or less. And I could not possibly know if anyone at all would appreciate or fully understand just what I was trying to say, since I really didn’t know how people would respond to my writing. Perhaps ignorance is bliss since, to this day, the most frequent comment I get concerning Sled Driver is that someone loved the “style of writing”. I guess there is some merit to writing from the heart. I initially thought that the people who had been associated with the program might want a copy along with some hardcore airplane enthusiasts, but I was surprised to see that there was a nation full of SR-71 fans out there, eager to get a copy, and even more eager to write to me and thank me for writing it. It was quite a rush for those first few years as the popularity of the book was a bit overwhelming at every book signing.


A year after the books release, I began doing more slide shows at aviation and science museums across the country, normally signing some of my books afterwards. I began to get a clearer picture at just how widespread peoples’ love, devotion, and interest was for the SR-71. And even more amazing to me was how many people were able to quote passages from my book to me. It became such that if I didn’t deliver a certain story or two in my slide show, someone in the audience would mention it, or they would point out some clarification from the book as if it were the authoritative source. Considering that it was far from a technical reference, I found this intriguing. At one show, I actually had a man come up to me and tell me where I was incorrect in something I said because he remembered it differently when he read the book. It was fun. The Sled Driver book had captured the imagination of a majority of all the SR-71 fans out there, which I began, lovingly, to refer to as “Sled Heads”. And of course there was the 14 year-old model builder who very accurately called to let me know that the photo used for the cover shot on the book, had been reversed. Now that cover shot has no discernable decaling on it, being pastel in nature, and only a real expert would have caught the fine detail of the small problem on the pitot boom being on the wrong side. Of course he was correct. We did that to make the plane go in a more natural book-opening direction of left to right. He forgave us when we explained, but I learned that the Sled Heads were watching, and I loved them for it.


Eventually, in 1995 I took the book out on the air show circuit, even though I was told that I would have little success with a $50 item at an air show venue. Within 4 years, I had gone through the remaining 10,000 books left in the warehouse. My other three books sold well, but no matter where I went, Sled Driver was always the most popular seller. With the unfortunate demise of Mach 1 Publishing, further reprints were not forthcoming, and the book sadly went out of print for a while.


This was bad timing as the popularity of the book seemed to be going through a resurgence right around the turn of the century. I think this was due to several factors. First, the jet had finally been retired, not only from the Air Force, but from NASA too, and was now in numerous museums around the country where millions of people had the opportunity to see it. Secondly, the prodigious growth of the internet served to spread the name Sled Driver further and faster than ever before. In addition to being mentioned on numerous book sites, there were three or four really good SR-71 sites that all touted the book as a prized addition to any Blackbird collection. I was never more inundated with emails and calls for the book, than in that first year when it went out of print. Sled Driver had become somewhat of an icon for the Blackbird mystique that was alive and well, and growing. The book had won the Best New Aviation Book award from the American Foundation of Writers, gone through four printings, and been sold in 13 different countries, and it broke my heart to have to tell people that there were no longer any copies available.

I remember selling the last one at the Reno Air Races and feeling quite sad. Such was the public demand, that I actually sold off all the demo copies, used ones, torn ones, defective ones-people just wanted to have one. When I found a box of first editions that we had overlooked in the store room, I sold those last dozen for $200 apiece. They lasted less than a month. What really gave me the impetus to obtain the publishing rights to my book and finance a remake, was witnessing the list of people on Amazon.com signed up for even a used copy. I actually saw some prices over $500. Unbelievable.


Thus, the birth of the new Limited Edition. I felt Sled Driver deserved a lavish printing worthy of its long term fame. The book had long been the “must have” Blackbird book for all Sled Heads out there and it was time to print, and write the book the way I had always wanted to redo it. (There is no anguish like that of an author reading his own book, late at night, years after having written it, and wanting to tear complete pages from the binding and re-write whole sections). With the Centennial of Flight Year upon us, it just seemed like the right time, and things started falling into place. Few authors get a chance to completely redo their book and improve it in every way, and I have fully immersed myself in the task.


I feel this special Limited Edition will surpass the original in every way. In essence, it is part of the original. No Sled Driver II here, just the same title, same basic story, many of the same photos, and oh so much more. I’ve added some new stories that never made it to the original, and expanded certain sections. There are also some new photographs thanks to the participation of famed Lockheed photographer Eric Schulzinger, and renowned aviation photographer George Hall. Both men were inspirations to me when I was first getting serious about my photography, and between the three of us, I think this will be the definitive SR-71 photo collection outside of government photos. I was lucky too, in being able to get the three men whose signatures I wanted along with mine in the book. Getting the first man to ever fly the plane, Robert Gilliland, and the pilot of the final official Air Force speed record dash across America, Ed Yeilding, was, I thought, an appropriate coupling of the first and last. And of course, after years of telling stories in my slide shows about my backseater, Walt Watson, he simply had to be included. Many people are unaware that Walt was the only African-American officer ever to fly as a crewmember in this prestigious program. And yes, we hand signed every single book, no digital signatures here.


Assigning a numbered book to each buyer, has been interesting thus far, as people have already been requesting a variety of different numbers of preference. And of course, several numbers were reserved before the book was ever finished. Book #1 had to be Bob Gilliland’s naturally, Walter got #2, and I took #71, just to name a few. We also reserved book #911 for President George Bush, which we hope to present to him in September of 2003. We’ve received a lot of good comments too, on the nice touch of embroidering each persons book number on their individual patch. Extra work, but it makes each patch one-of-a-kind. We’re still debating whether more people will wear their patch, or frame it on their wall. Either way, we are very proud of that design, as putting the Wright Flyer and the SR-71 together symmetrically was no easy task, and it’s never been done before.


How did we come up with $427 as a final price? 427 degrees was the maximum SR-71 compressor inlet temperature limit. Highly classified for years, it was the one factor that determined the limiting Mach on any given day. I knew the Sled Heads would appreciate knowing that. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the Limited Edition, will go to Military Family Assist Programs. And as a point of interest, that now famous cover shot, will not only be going in the correct direction, but will, for the first time, be shown in its original full frame horizontal perspective. We added some pages, made the book larger in size, and spared no expense in putting together what we think is a book very worthy of its pedigreed name.


In the decade since the original book first appeared, I have never ceased to be amazed at the depth and widespread devotion that this plane elicits nationwide. I have been very proud to keep the memory of this great plane alive through the original Sled Driver, and now, the Limited Edition. It is a plane worthy of remembrance. I was privileged to have flown it, and have been privileged to share that experience with so many great people across this nation.

Head Sledder

Brian Shul
Gallery One




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