Pilot, a Navy veteran, hailed as 'hero' with 'nerves of steel'

Lieutenant Tammie Jo Shults with her F/A-18 jet in 1992. One Flight 1380 passenger called her "a true American hero" and another praised her for having "nerves of steel" in landing the stricken plane safely.
Lieutenant Tammie Jo Shults with her F/A-18 jet in 1992. One Flight 1380 passenger called her "a true American hero" and another praised her for having "nerves of steel" in landing the stricken plane safely.PHOTO: U.S. NAVY VIA NYTIMES

NEW YORK • About 20 minutes after takeoff on Tuesday, Captain Tammie Jo Shults was steering a Southwest Airlines plane towards cruising altitude, generally considered the safest part of a flight.

But then the left engine exploded. The blast hurled debris into the side of the plane. A passenger window shattered. The cabin depressurised. A woman was partly sucked outside the plane. Passengers panicked and flight attendants sprang into action.

In the cockpit, 56-year-old Captain Shults remained calm as she steadied the aircraft, Flight 1380.

"Southwest 1380 has an engine fire," she radioed to air traffic controllers, not a hint of alarm in her voice. "Descending."

In an instant, she found herself in a situation most pilots face only during training: having to land a plane after an engine goes out.

For the next 40 minutes, she displayed what one passenger later called "nerves of steel", manoeuvring the plane, which had been on its way from New York to Dallas, towards Philadelphia for an emergency landing.

Captain Shults learnt to fly as one of the first female fighter pilots in the US Navy three decades ago, piloting the F/A-18 Hornet in an era when women were barred from combat missions.

"Can you have the medical meet us there on the runway," she calmly told air traffic controllers. "They said there's a hole and someone went out."

At 11.20am Eastern time (11.20pm Singapore time), she steered the plane to a smooth landing at Philadelphia International Airport.

"This is a true American hero," passenger Diana McBride Self said on Facebook. "A huge thank you for her knowledge, guidance and bravery in a traumatic situation."

Another passenger, Mr Alfred Tumlinson, was more direct in his praise. "She has nerves of steel," he told The Associated Press.

While women still make up a small percentage of commercial pilots, Captain Shults took up flying when there were far fewer in the industry.

In her junior year at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas, she attended an US Air Force event and spotted a woman in a piloting class, she told an alumni publication. She graduated in 1983 with a bachelor's degree in biology and agribusiness and then set off to join the military.

The Air Force would not accept her, she told the publication, but the Navy did. She enrolled in Navy flight school in Pensacola, Florida, in 1985 - the start of a decade of groundbreaking service.

She flew the F/A-18 Hornet, the twin-engine supersonic fighter jet and bomber. During the Gulf War, her squadron was led by the first female air commander in the Navy.

She twice received the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, along with a National Defence Service Medal and an expert pistol Marksmanship Medal.

But despite her accomplishments, she came up against the limits placed on women in the military.

She left active service on March 31, 1993 - two days before the Navy asked the Clinton administration to open combat assignments to women. She then spent about a year in the reserves before leaving the military in 1994, reaching the rank of lieutenant commander.

Captain Shults later became a pilot with Southwest Airlines, as did her husband, whom she met in the Navy.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2018, with the headline 'Pilot, a Navy veteran, hailed as 'hero' with 'nerves of steel''. Print Edition | Subscribe