With Repeated Experiences We Establish “a Personal Relationship” with Technological Tools

In a philosophy course that our daughter Jenny took at Notre Dame, a reading or two suggested that repeated experience with technologies make them almost extensions of our own senses, expanding what Ed Yong (quoting others) calls our “umwelt” (which I think means the scope of the sensory world we can experience). My guess is that pilot Brian Shul (who is discussed below) experienced this after many hours piloting the SR-71 Blackbird. If this is an important phenomenon, and I think it is, then it increases even further the diversity of what Hayek called “local knowledge” and what Polanyi called “tacit knowledge.”

(p. A17) Brian Shul, a retired Air Force major who modestly described himself as “a survivor” rather than a hero after he was downed in a Vietnamese jungle, suffering near-fatal injuries, before rebounding to pilot the world’s fastest spy plane, died on May 20 [2023] in Reno, Nev.

. . .

His final assignment, before he retired in 1990 after a two-decade military career, was piloting the SR-71, the world’s highest-flying jet.

The aircraft, nicknamed the Blackbird and deployed to monitor Soviet nuclear submarines and missile sites, as well as to undertake reconnaissance missions over Libya, could soar to 85,000 feet, fly at more than three times the speed of sound and survey 100,000 square miles of the Earth’s surface in a single hour.

“To fly this jet, and fly it well, meant establishing a personal relationship with a fusion of titanium, fuel, stick and throttles,” Major Shul wrote in his book “Sled Driver: Flying the World’s Fastest Jet” (1991), invoking the detractive nickname that U-2 pilots had pinned on their faster Blackbird counterparts. “It meant feeling the airplane came alive and had a personality all her own.”

Major Shul piloted the Blackbird for 2,000 hours over four years.

. . .

The Lockheed SR-71 soared so high into the mid-stratosphere that its crew was outfitted in spacesuits, and it flew so swiftly that it could outpace missiles.

“We were the fastest guys on the block and loved reminding our fellow aviators of this fact,” Major Shul wrote.

. . .

In Vietnam, he was a foreign air adviser during the war, piloting support missions in conjunction with the Central Intelligence Agency’s Air America, which flew reconnaissance, rescue and logistical support missions for the military.

When his aircraft was attacked, he crash-landed in the jungle, where he was rescued by a Special Forces team and evacuated to Okinawa, Japan. Doctors there predicted that his burns would prove fatal.

. . .

. . . one day, while lying in bed, he heard children playing soccer and, as he remembered being their age, the radio began to play Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow.”

“You listen to the words to that song — it’s all about daring to dream,” Major Shul said in a speech at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California in 2016.

“I heard the words of that song for the first time that day,” he continued. “They penetrated my brain sharper than any scalpel they were using, and I could look out the window and see the other side of the rainbow and those kids, and I made a choice. I made a decision right then. I am going to try to eat the food tomorrow. I want to live. I’m going to try to survive.”

For the full obituary, see:

Sam Roberts. “Brian Shul, Fighter Pilot Who Flew World’s Fastest Plane, Dies at 75.” The New York Times (Saturday, June 3, 2023): A17.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated June 8 [sic], 2023, and has the title “Brian Shul Dies at 75; Fighter Pilot Who Flew World’s Fastest Plane.”)

The Shul autobiography quoted in a passage above is:

Shul, Brian. Sled Driver: Flying the World’s Fastest Jet. 2nd ed. Chico, CA: MACH 1, Inc., 1991. [I am not sure the year is right in this citation. Maybe it should be 1992. I have not seen a copy of the book, and citations online are inconsistent.]

The Yong book I mention at the start is:

Yong, Ed. An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms around Us. New York: Random House, 2022.

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