Tammie Jo Shults: The Pilot With "Nerves of Steel" Who Landed Southwest Flight 1380 by Jessica Acree
"A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles." – Christopher Reeve
At any given moment there are 5,000 aircraft in the sky, flown by highly-trained pilots with incredible skill. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, they’re trusted to safely transport more than 2.5 million passengers each day to their destination, a journey through the sky that many of us probably take for granted. We board the plane, putting our lives in the hands of the trusted crew on board. Sure, there might be a little turbulence or a crying baby to deal with, but more often than not, it’s smooth sailing … except, when it’s not.
On April 17, 2018, the unthinkable happened. Southwest Airlines flight 1380 from New York to Dallas never made it. Without warning, an engine on the plane blew apart, showering the aircraft with debris. Suspected shrapnel from the explosion shattered a window, nearly sucking a mother of two out at an altitude of over 30,000 feet. She was the only passenger among 149 people on board the Boeing 737 who didn’t survive the horrifying ordeal, but in that moment they all feared the worst.
“I grabbed my wife’s hand and I started praying: ‘Dear Jesus, send some angels. Just save us from this,’” said Timothy C. Bourman, a pastor on his way to a church retreat. “I thought we were goners.” (The New York Times)
They were in good hands with U.S. military veteran Tammie Jo Shults at the controls and luckily, she knew just what to do. The decorated Navy trained pilot had long fought to pursue her dream of flying in a male-dominated field, not letting anyone get in her way. Her courage and tenacity to succeed now serving as a guiding force, helping her land a plane just launched into a real-world nightmare scenario.
“We’re single engine. We have part of the aircraft missing, so we’re going to need to slow down a bit,” she explained to air traffic control, “can you have medical meet us on the runway? We’ve got injured passengers ... there’s a hole and someone went out.” (SoundCloud)
It’s the moment we all dread, but assume will never happen to us. The cabin lost pressure, the oxygen masks came down, rapid descent began, chaos erupted – the plane was going down. Shults wasn’t fazed calling the shots with an impressive command of the situation. In the audio recording, her voice never wavers, even sounding at ease as she navigates the unplanned descent alongside First Officer Darren Ellisor.
“She was so cool when she brought (the plane) down into the Philadelphia airport,” passenger Alfred Tumlinson said. “Everybody just was applauding. It was amazing that we made it to the ground.” (The Washington Post)
When the 20-minute emergency landing was over, Shults reportedly emerged from the cockpit wearing her bomber jacket to check on her passengers, to personally shake their hands, give hugs and talk with survivors face to face. The young girl who grew up in New Mexico near the Holloman Air Force Base with visions of flying, now a seasoned pilot being hailed as a hero with “nerves of steel” for getting everyone back on the ground without further tragedy.
A statement released by the airline reads, “As Captain and First Officer of the Crew of five who worked to serve our Customers aboard flight 1380, we all feel we were simply doing our jobs. Our hearts are heavy. On behalf of the entire Crew, we appreciate the outpouring of support from the public and our coworkers as we all reflect on one family’s profound loss.”
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the engine mishap, pointing to “metal fatigue” as a factor in the incident.
Longtime family friends say Shults has always embraced the experiences and challenges she has faced, making her a powerful mentor to young female pilots or girls thinking about their own military career.
The story of her life and career is one of 70 U.S. military veteran women featured in the 2012 book, “Military Fly Moms,” by Linda Maloney, describing women who had dreams of becoming both aviators in the military and moms. Shults is mother of two and is married to a fellow Southwest Airlines pilot.
Photo: Linda Maloney
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