“She has nerves of steel,” one passenger, Alfred Tumlinson, told the Associated Press.
Tammie Jo Shults’s voice was calm yet focused as her Boeing 737-700 descended with 149 people on board.
“Southwest 1380, we’re single engine,” Shults, a former fighter pilot with the U.S. Navy, said. “We have part of the aircraft missing so we’re going to need to slow down a bit.” She asked for medical personnel to meet her aircraft on the runway. “We’ve got injured passengers.”
Asked if the plane was on fire, she said: “No, it’s not on fire, but part of it’s missing,” Shults said, pausing for a moment. “They said there’s a hole, and uh, someone went out.”
On Apr. 18, 2018, the engine on Shults’s plane had exploded spraying shrapnel into the aircraft, causing a window to be blown out and leaving one woman dead and seven other people injured. According MSN, passengers pulled the woman who later died back into the plane as she was being sucked out. Others on board the Dallas-bound flight braced for impact as oxygen masks muffled their screams.
Shults was able to save the lives of 148 people aboard her Boeing 737 by successfully completing an emergency landing the midst of the chaos at the Philadelphia International Airport.
“She has nerves of steel,” one passenger, Alfred Tumlinson, told the Associated Press. “That lady, I applaud her. I’m going to send her a Christmas card — I’m going to tell you that — with a gift certificate for getting me on the ground. She was awesome.”
Another passenger, Diana McBride Self, thanked Shults on Facebook for her “guidance and bravery in a traumatic situation.” She added that Shults “came back to speak to each of us personally.”
“This is a true American Hero,” McBride wrote.
Shults has been compared with Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who glided his US Airways plane to safety in New York’s Hudson River in 2009.
Southwest declined to name the pilot, though passengers confirmed Shults’s name on social media, and Shults’s mother-in-law told The Washington Post she was the pilot. Shults’s husband also confirmed her name to the Associated Press. Shults declined to comment when reached by The Post.
According to her alma mater, MidAmerica Nazarene University, from which she graduated in 1983, Shults was among the first female fighter pilots for the U.S. Navy. Cindy Foster, who went to college with her, told the Kansas City Star that Shults was also among the first women to fly an F/A-18 Hornet for the U.S. Navy.
“She said she wasn’t going to let anyone tell her she couldn’t,” Foster said.
“Some people grow up around aviation. I grew up under it,” she said. Watching the daily air show, she knew she “just had to fly.”
She recalled attending a lecture on aviation during her senior year of high school, in 1979. A retired colonel started the class by asking Shults, 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,” she wrote. “He allowed me to stay but assured me there were no professional women pilots.”
When she met a woman in college who had received her Air Force wings, she wrote, “I set to work trying to break into the club.”
But Shults, whose maiden name is Bonnell, wrote that the Air Force “wasn’t interested” in talking to her. The Navy let her apply for aviation officer candidate school, “but there did not seem to be a demand for women pilots.”
“Finally,” she wrote, a year after taking the Navy aviation exam, she found a recruiter who would process her application. After aviation officer candidate school in Pensacola, Fla., she was assigned to a training squadron at Naval Air Station Chase Field in Beeville, Tex., as an instructor pilot teaching student aviators how to fly the Navy T-2 trainer. She later left to fly the A-7 Corsair II in Lemoore, Calif.
By then, she met her “knight in shining airplane,” a fellow pilot who would become her husband, Dean Shults who also now flies for Southwest Airlines.
As reported by MSN, because of the combat exclusion law, Tammie Jo Shults was prohibited from flying in a combat squadron. While her husband was able to join a squadron, her choices were limited, involving providing electronic warfare training to Navy ships and aircraft.
She later became one of the first women to fly the F/A-18 Hornet, that was then the Navy’s newest fighter, but again in a support role. “Women were new to the Hornet community, and already there were signs of growing pains.”
She served in the Navy for 10 years, reaching the rank of Navy lieutenant commander. She left the Navy in 1993, and now lives in the San Antonio area with her husband. She has two children — a teenage son and a daughter in her early 20s.
Foster, her friend from college, told the Kansas City Star that Shults knew she “had to work harder than everyone else.” Foster said.
“She did it for herself and all women fighting for a chance,” Foster said.
The passenger killed was identified as Jennifer Riordan, of Albuquerque, by her employer Wells Fargo. Riordan was an Albuquerque-based community relations leader “who was loved and respected,” Wells Fargo said in a statement.
“Knowing Tammie Jo, I know her heart is broken for the death of that passenger,” her mother-in-law, Virginia Shults, said.
This article by Dario Leone originally appeared on The Aviation Geek Club in 2018.