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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Below is an excerpt of her story:
Some people grow up around aviation. I grew up under it. Our New Mexico ranch sat under the dogfighting airspace of Holloman AFB. Reading the missionary book, Jungle Pilot, by Nate Saint and watching the daily air show cinched it. I just had to fly!
During my senior year of high school in 1979, I attended a vocational day where I heard a retired colonel give a lecture on aviation. He started the class by asking me, the only girl in attendance, if I was lost. I mustered up the courage to assure him I was not and that I was interested in flying. He allowed me to stay but assured me there were no professional women pilots.
I did not say another word. In my heart, I hoped that God had given me an interest in flying for a reason. I had never touched an airplane, but I knew flying was my future. My junior year in college, I met a girl who had just received her Air Force wings. My heart jumped. Girls did fly! I set to work trying to break into the club.
However, the Air Force wasn’t interested in talking to me but they wanted to know if my brother wanted to fly. The Navy was a little more charitable and let me take the test and fill out the application for aviation officer candidate school, but there did not seem to be a demand for women pilots. When the military flight program looked like a set of closed, locked doors, I headed back to school, starting a graduate program at Western New Mexico University. I wrestled with modifying my career choice. I did not understand how I could have such an interest in flying, not a passing infatuation but a real desire, and yet have no way of trying out my wings.
Finally, a year after taking the Navy aviation exam, I found a recruiter who would process my application. Within two months, I was getting my hair buzzed off and doing pushups in aviation officer candidate school in Pensacola, Florida. I had finally broken into the flight club!
After graduation, I started flight training, initially flying the T-34 Mentor. It was intense, joyful, and horrible, all depending on the instructor and, ultimately, the leadership. The friendships I made in T-34 training remained a source of fun and encouragement all the way through getting those coveted gold wings at graduation. Next, I was assigned to one of the training squadrons at NAS Beeville, Texas, as
an instructor pilot teaching student aviators how to fly the Navy T-2 trainer. The squadron’s commanding officer made his unit a fun place to work and this was a really enjoyable tour. A few years later, I received orders to fly the A-7 Corsair and left for the A-7 training squadron—VA-122 in Lemoore, California. I had met my knight in shining airplane—Dean Shults—before I left for Lemoore. We married ten months after we met, and, thankfully, Dean also got orders to Lemoore to fly the A-7.
Until now, being a woman aviator had been no big deal. However, all that changed when I entered VA-122; there was certainly a shift in attitude. The other students were the same guys I had been flying with since flight school but the leadership was not exactly welcoming. Since the combat exclusion law prohibited women from flying in a combat squadron, I had very limited choices where I could fly the A-7 when I finished my training, either VAQ-33 in Key West, Florida, or VAQ-34 in Point Mugu, California. Both were support squadrons that provided electronic warfare training to Navy ships and aircraft. Dean, however, joined a combat A-7 squadron at Lemoore and I chose VAQ-34, two hours from Lemoore.
I was fortunate to work for VAQ-34’s first female commanding officer—Commander Rosemary Mariner. Commander Mariner opened my eyes to the incredible influence of leadership. She was a shining example of how to lead. At the time, I was honored to call her my commanding officer. Now, I feel fortunate to count her as a friend.
After flying the A-7 for a couple of years, our squadron transitioned to the Navy’s newest fighter, the F/A-18 Hornet, but again in a support role with VAQ-34. I went back to Lemoore to learn how to fly the Hornet. Women were new to the Hornet community, and already there were signs of growing pains. My initial Hornet flight instructor, call sign Micro, set the standard for gentlemen in aviation. The flights under his direction were a dream—the aircraft seemed like magic, mixed with his good company. The euphoria was short-lived, however, because the rest of the training squadron did not share Micro's open-mindedness about flying with women. After completing the training, I went back to VAQ-34 and finished out my tour flying the Hornet.
When our squadron tours ended, Dean and I decided to get out of the Navy. We wanted to try our hands at civilian flying and start a family. So, in 1993, I left the Navy, and the following year Dean left active duty as well. We both joined Southwest Airlines—Dean works a full-time schedule, and I typically fly eight to ten days a month. We try to fly the same days so that we are all home together.
There is more to life than flying. Dean and I have a beautiful, darling daughter, now eleven years old, and a handsome son, now ten. They each have sweet yet very opposite personalities, one being “Tarzan Cinderella” and the other “Captain Cautious.” We have been blessed with nearby friends and family who provide love and godly council to our children when Dean and I do fly at the same time. We endeavor to teach our children to be leaders, not lemmings. This is especially important when it comes to making the right choice while the crowd is pulling in the other direction.
I recently took a trip with my children and parents to Carlsbad, New Mexico. As we drove, my dad casually mentioned the airfield we were passing. He mused over the time he had soloed at the small airstrip outside the town. I stared at him in amazement. I’ve been flying for twenty-three years and I never knew he’d soloed. I do have a bit of family history in aviation after all!
Mom to Mom: The most rewarding thing about being a mom is watching my children grow in their relationship with the Lord. Often, I hear snatches of what is in their hearts and I am very touched—a sweet smile, a word of encouragement, a truth or scripture they share from their own discovery.