On Tuesday, an engine had just exploded on a Dallas-bound flight soon after its departure from New York, spraying shrapnel into the Southwest aircraft. Chaos ensued: The window was blown out, and a woman was being sucked into the hole. Passengers struggled to pull her back in. They succeeded. She died of her injuries.
Others braced for impact as oxygen masks muffled their screams. They were making an emergency landing in Philadelphia International Airport.
The pilot’s voice was calm yet focused as her plane descended with 149 people on board.
“Southwest 1380, we’re single engine,” Tammie Jo 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.”
“Injured passengers, okay, and is your airplane physically on fire?” asked a male voice on the other end, according to an air traffic recording.
Shults successfully completed an emergency landing at the Philadelphia International Airport, sparing the lives of 148 people aboard the Boeing 737-700 and averting a far worse catastrophe.
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.
Shults’s mother-in-law and friends described Tammie Jo Shults as a pioneer in the aviation field, a woman who broke barriers to pursue her goals.
She was among the first female fighter pilots for the U.S. Navy, according to her alma mater, MidAmerica Nazarene University, from which she graduated in 1983. 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 Navy.
“She said she wasn’t going to let anyone tell her she couldn’t,” Foster said.
The Navy let Schults, whose maiden name is Bonnell, apply for aviation officer candidate school, “but there did not seem to be a demand for women pilots.”
She became one of the first women to fly what was then the Navy’s newest fighter, the F/A-18 Hornet, but 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, who also flies for Southwest Airlines. She has two children — a teenage son and a daughter in her early 20s.
“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 Self wrote. Others on social media agreed, even comparing Shults with Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who glided his US Airways plane to safety in New York’s Hudson River in 2009.
Seven passengers were injured, and one was dead. In Southwest’s 51 years of existence, this is the first passenger fatality. 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.
She also described Shults as a devout Christian, a faith she thinks may have contributed to her calm state amid the emergency landing.
“I know God was with her, and I know she was talking to God,” Virginia Shults said.