A Southwest Airlines pilot who coolly landed a crippled plane yesterday after it lost an engine was a Navy aviation trailblazer in her past life.
Tammie Jo Shults is being lauded for saving 148 souls aboard Flight 1380 on Tuesday after a harrowing in-flight failure left one passenger dead and several others injured.
Some time ago, she was Lt. Cmdr. Shults, and was among the first cohort of women pilots to transition to tactical aircraft, Navy officials confirmed Wednesday.
Shults, who could not be reached for comment, was commissioned in 1985 and completed flight training in Pensacola, Florida.
She went on to serve with the Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 34 in Point Mugu, California, as an instructor on EA-6B Prowler and F/A-18 Hornets.
New Mexico resident Jennifer Riordan died after the twin-engine Boeing 737 bound for Dallas lost an engine after leaving New York, the Associated Press reported.
The cause of the engine failure is under investigation.
A window was shattered during the chaos, and Riordan was partially sucked out, according to the AP. Passengers scrambled to pull her back into the plane, but the physical trauma of being exposed had taken its toll.
She is the first person to die in a U.S. airline accident since 2009, the New York Times reported.
Once safely back on the ground in Philadelphia, passengers praised Shults’ cool-headed demeanor.
“She has nerves of steel,” passenger Alfred Tumlinson told the AP. “I’m going to send her a Christmas card…with a gift certificate for getting me on the ground. She was awesome.”
A recording of Shults’ communications with ground control as she brought the stricken jet in shows her handling the crisis in a calm, matter-of-fact demeanor, peppered with the “sirs” that often indicate prior military service.
“We are single engine descending, have a fire in (engine) number one,” she said. “Could you have medical meet us there on the runway as well? We’ve got injured passengers.”
Shults left active duty service in 1993, and the reserves in 2001, according to the Navy.
In a 1993 profile of her squadron in All Hands magazine, then-Lt. Shults noted the challenges of being a woman entering what had been an all-male field.
“In (Aviation Officer Candidate School), if you’re a woman…you’re high profile,” Shults said. “You’re under more scrutiny.”
Chances for women to learn as much in the aviation community were limited, the profile states.
“It would be nice if they would take away the ceilings (women) have over our heads,” she added.
Still, Shults said that in VAQ-34, “gender doesn’t matter.”
“There’s no advantage or disadvantage,” Shults said. “Which proves my point — if there’s a good mix of gender, it ceases to be an issue.”
Passengers told the AP that Shults walked down the aisle and checked on everyone after the plane was back on terra firma.
“She’s a formidable woman, sharp as a tack,” her brother-in-law, Gary Shults, told the AP. “She’s a very caring, giving person who takes care of lots of people.”
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.