- A Southwest Airlines flight made an emergency landing on Tuesday, after the plane’s engine exploded.
- The pilot who guided it back down is a former US Navy fighter pilot and reportedly the first woman to fly the F-18 Hornet.
- She was praised by passengers for her skill and calm demeanour.
The pilot who guided a Southwest Airlines flight back to Earth on Tuesday, after the plane’s engine exploded and sprayed the cabin with shrapnel, wounding several passengers and killing one, is a former fighter pilot and a pioneer in her field.
Tammie Jo Shults was among the first female fighter pilots in the US Navy, according to friends and the alumni group at her alma mater, MidAmerica Nazarene University, from which she graduated in 1983.
Cindy Foster, a university classmate, told The Kansas City Star that Shults chose the Navy after the Air Force denied her the opportunity to be a pilot and that she’d met “a lot of resistance” because she was a woman.
“So she knew she had to work harder than everyone else,” Foster told The Star. “She did it for herself and all women fighting for a chance.
“I’m extremely proud of her. She saved a lot of lives today,” Foster said, adding that Shults was the first woman to fly an F/A-18 Hornet for the Navy.
Foster said Shults always had a love for flying, and Shults herself said she knew she “just had to fly” while growing up on a New Mexico ranch, according to Linda Maloney’s book, “Military Fly Mums.”
“Some people grow up around aviation. I grew up under it,” Shults said in the book.
According to the book, cited by The Washington Post, the Air Force expressed no interest in Shults, and she turned to the Navy, which let her apply for aviation officer candidate school. It took a year to get her application processed, but she eventually attended school in Pensacola, Florida, and was then assigned to a training squadron in Texas, where she taught student pilots on the Navy’s T-2 trainer.
She was not permitted to join a combat squadron, however, and was limited to flying in support roles, with Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 34, based at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California.
“In AOCS [Aviation Officer Candidate School], if you’re a woman [or different in any way], you’re a high profile; you’re under more scrutiny,” she said in a March 1993 edition of All Hands, a Navy magazine. She said opportunities for women to gain knowledge about the aviation community were limited, telling the magazine, “It would be nice if they would take away the ceilings [women] have over our heads.”
She flew the A-7 Corsair and the F/A-18 Hornet while with the aggressor squadron. Though her time in the F-18 including carrier landings, she was one of the first women to fly it and encountered hurdles doing so. “Women were new to the Hornet community, and already there were signs of growing pains,” she said in Maloney’s book.
She left the Navy in 1993, having reached the rank of lieutenant commander. She and her husband, who was also a Navy pilot, both eventually joined Southwest Airlines.
‘She has nerves of steel’
Passengers on Southwest flight 1380 praised her for her skill in landing the damaged plane.
“The plane was steady as a rock after (the engine blew),”said Eric Zilbert. “I didn’t have any fear that it was out of control.”
“She has nerves of steel. That lady, I applaud her. I’m going to send her a Christmas card … She was awesome,” Alfred Tumlinson told the Associated Press. “The lady, the crew, everything, everybody was immaculate. They were so professional in what they did to get us on the ground.”
Other passengers said she walked down the aisles of the plane after the landing, making sure they were OK.
“The pilot was a veteran of the Navy,” passenger Kathy Farnan told CNN. “She had 32 years in – a woman. And she was very good.”
“The pilot Tammy Jo was so amazing! She landed us safely in Philly,” said Amanda Bourman. “God sent his angels to watch over us.”
Shults’ mother-in-law said she knew who the pilot was as soon as she heard the plane’s radio transmissions. “That is Tammie Jo,” she told The Post.
“She’s a formidable woman, as sharp as a tack,” her brother-in-law told the AP. “My brother says she’s the best pilot he knows. She’s a very caring, giving person who takes care of lots of people.”