Southwest pilot Tammie Jo Shults praised, but downplays emergency landing

The Southwest Airlines pilot being called a hero in a harrowing emergency landing after a passenger was partially blown out of the jet’s damaged fuselage is also being hailed for her pioneering role in a career where she has been one of the few women at the controls.

Tammie Jo Shults, one of the first female fighter pilots in the U.S. navy, was the captain and was piloting Dallas-bound Flight 1380 when it made an emergency landing Tuesday in Philadelphia, according to her husband, Dean Shults.

One of the engines on the Boeing 737 exploded while the plane was travelling about 800 km/h at over 9,000 metres, with 149 people on board. Shrapnel hit the plane and passengers said they had to rescue a woman who was being blown out of a damaged window. The woman, identified as bank executive Jennifer Riordan, later died of blunt force trauma to her head, neck and torso.

Shults calmly relayed details about the crisis to air traffic controllers, and passengers commended her handling of the situation.

Stephanie Needum, a passenger on the flight, said Thursday Shults even took time out afterward to talk to Needum’s five-year-old daughter and lift the child’s spirits after the tense experience.

Shults and the other pilot on board, First Officer Darren Ellisor, released a statement late Wednesday that said they would be co-operating with investigators and wouldn’t be conducting any media interviews.

“As captain and first officer of the crew of five who worked to serve our customers aboard Flight 1380 yesterday, we all feel we were simply doing our jobs,” Shults and Ellisor said. “Our hearts are heavy. On behalf of the entire [crew], we appreciate the outpouring of support from the public and our co-workers as we all reflect on one family’s profound loss.”

Tammie Jo Shults, shown in a March 20, 2017, photo provided by Kevin Garber at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kan., was one of the first female fighter pilots in the U.S. navy. She was piloting Dallas-bound Flight 1380 when it made the emergency landing, according to her husband, Dean Shults. (Kevin Garber/MidAmerica Nazarene University via AP)

Friends at Shults’s church in Boerne, Texas, about 50 kilometres northwest of San Antonio, said Wednesday they were not surprised after listening to the recording and reading media reports about her actions.

“Everybody is talking about Tammie Jo and how cool and calm she was in a crisis, and that’s just Tammie Jo,” Rachel Russo said. “That’s how she’s wired.” 

Shults was commissioned into the navy in 1985 and reached the rank of lieutenant commander, said Cmdr. Ron Flanders, spokesperson for Naval Air Forces in San Diego.

Fighter pilot pioneer

Women aviators were excluded from combat missions until the month after Shults got off active duty in March 1993, but Flanders said Shults flew during Operation Desert Storm trainings as an aggressor enemy pilot.

“While we at that time had an exclusion, she was in fact helping male pilots hone their skills,” Flanders said.

Veteran navy combat aviator Linda Maloney said she and Shults were among a small group of women who worked to see the combat exclusion rule repealed.

“Obviously it was frustrating,” said Maloney, who became among the first women to join a combat military flying squadron and was deployed to the Arabian Gulf. “We go through the same training that the guys do, and our hope was the navy would allow us to fly in combat at some point.”

The window in this photo provided Wednesday by passenger Marty Martinez shows it shattered after a the Southwest Airlines airplane’s jet engine blew out at altitude. The plane made an emergency landing Tuesday in Philadelphia.(Marty Martinez via Associated Press)

Shults was featured in Maloney’s book Military Fly Moms along with the stories and photos of 69 other women U.S. military veterans.

Russo and Staci Thompson, who has known Shults for about 20 years and was nanny to her two children when they were small, said she “loved” her military career, but has alluded to frustrations and challenges that came with it.

They also said she embraced those experiences to make her stronger and guide her into a role as a mentor to young female pilots or girls thinking about a military career.

“She learned a lot about overcoming things as a woman in a male-dominated field,” Russo said.

Shults is from New Mexico, according to a personnel file from the navy, and was a 1983 graduate of MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas, where she earned degrees in biology and agribusiness.

Shults’s brother-in-law, Gary Shults, said her husband also is a Southwest pilot and told him she made the emergency landing.

“She’s a formidable woman, as sharp as a tack,” said the San Antonio dentist. “My brother says she’s the best pilot he knows.”

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