Captain Tammie Jo Shults, one of the Navy’s first female fighter pilots, is the person you hope is in the cockpit when things get dicey.
Twenty minutes into a four-hour flight from New York to Dallas there was a loud bang. Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 was 30,000 feet in the air on Tuesday morning when the plane’s left engine exploded, shooting debris into the fuselage and through a cabin window. In a minute, the plane dropped thousands of feet. Oxygen masks fell. The 144 passengers cried, screamed and prayed.
Captain Tammie Jo Shults, the 56-year-old Texan and former Navy fighter pilot at the controls was praying too.
While wind and debris swirled around the depressurized cabin, 20 minutes passed as Shults maneuvered the plane on just one engine, deftly rerouting it to Philadelphia for an emergency landing. In the end, one woman was fatally injured and seven people had minor injuries. Miraculously, the other 136 passengers were able to walk away unhurt.
In the aftermath of what could have easily been a greater tragedy, it quickly became evident that Shults is no ordinary pilot, and with her renowned “nerves of steel,” she’s the person you hope is in the cockpit when things get dicey.
Shults, a devoted churchgoer and mother-of-two who lives with her family in San Antonio, has made a career out of defying the odds. When she joined the Navy in 1985, women were prohibited from flying in combat. The Navy says she was one of its first female pilots to transition to tactical aircraft.
According to the book Military Fly Moms, she was originally denied entry into the Air Force, which led her to apply to become a pilot for the Navy. It took her a year, but she eventually found a recruiter who agreed to process her application. Two months later, she buzzed her hair made her way to Pensacola, Florida, for flight training.
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In the Navy she met and married her husband Dean, a fellow pilot. In the early 1990s they left the military to become pilots for Southwest Airlines.
The couple’s longtime neighbor, Sandy Green, wasn’t at all surprised to learn of Tammie Jo’s bravery.
“Heck no, she's a strong Christian lady," Green told the Morning News. "She's a very confident person. She was doing her job. I'm so happy she was able to land safely, for all those people. So proud she was able to do her job."