“She has nerves of steel,” said a passenger aboard the plane about the pilot who remained remarkably calm and safely landed the plane even though it had a massive hole and lost one of its engines.
On April 17, 2018, Southwest Airline flight 1380 heading out of New York City on route to Dallas, was forced to make an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport after an engine failed mid flight. Carrying 149 people on board, the plane had 21,000 pounds or roughly five hours of fuel to last when the pilot discovered the hole along the side of the plane.
The 737 plane had just reached a cruising altitude of 32,500 feet when an engine exploded. 56-year-old Captain Tammie Jo Shults, née Bonnell, remained calm under extreme pressure, safely landing the plane despite the ensuing chaos and protecting the lives of 144 passengers and five crew members. In six minutes, the plane dropped more than 20,000 feet in altitude.
Engine debris crashed into a plane window, breaking it and nearly sucked out a passenger, Jennifer Riordan, seated nearby. A Wells Fargo executive from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Riordan was saved by other passengers who held on to her and saved her from being sucked out of the plane. Riordan was still alive when the plane landed safely on the runway in Philadelphia. Nonetheless, Riordan still suffered intense blunt force trauma to the head, and passed away later that night despite efforts by medics to save her life. All other passengers arrived safely to the emergency destination of Philadelphia after the pilot deftly maneuvered the plane to the runway.
Remarkably calm and focused, Southwest Airline pilot, Captain Tammie Jo Shults, a former fighter pilot for the U.S. Navy, radioed into the air traffic controller. According to audio of the interaction, the conversation did not skip a beat.
“Southwest 1380, we’re single engine,” said Tammie Jo Shults. “We have part of the aircraft missing, so we’re going to need to slow down a bit.” She told the air traffic controller that they needed medical personnel to meet them on the runway. “We’ve got injured passengers.”
“Injured passengers, okay, and is your airplane physically on fire?” asked the air traffic controller.
“No, it’s not on fire, but part of it’s missing,” Shults said, pausing. “They said there’s a hole, and, uh, someone went out.”
In fact, an entire engine had exploded, spreading shrapnel back into the aircraft and destroying an entire window. The intense and powerful damage left one passenger, a woman, dead, and injured seven others.
While passengers screamed and panicked upon hearing the noisy explosion, Shults diverted the plane to an emergency landing in Philadelphia, guiding the plane smoothly onto the runway. She touched down at 190 mph and saved the lives of 148 people on board the sinking plane, thus averting an even bigger catastrophe.
Here are three powerful lessons we can learn from Tammie Jo Shults’ heroism.
Lesson 1. Leadership Under Pressure
Staying calm in an emergency is no easy feat, especially when you have a sinking plane, do not know if the plane will safely land and you are surrounded by screaming, terrified passengers. Tammie Jo Shults showed remarkable fortitude and remained calm under high pressure.
In fact, a passenger, 55-year-old Alfred Tumlinson who was traveling with his wife from George West, Texas, was amazed by Shults’ calmness.
Tumlinson and his wife Diana Self (who took the photo of Shults and passengers after safely landing), did not expect to make it home safely after hearing the loud engine explosion. In interviews later with news channels, Tumlinson shared how calm Shults was and how soothing her voice sounded over the plane intercom after the loud explosion. Shults told the passengers that they were descending and not going down and to stay calm and brace themselves. She told the passengers to keep their masks on.
The plane landed safely. The passengers were amazed to have landed safely to the ground. As medics filled the plane, Shults entered the cabin to talk to each of the passengers, shake their hands and comfort them.
Benjamin Goldstein, a New York resident who was traveling to Dallas for a conference, shared his experience. He told news sources the next day, “I asked her, ‘Do I get a hug too?’ and that she replied, ‘Of course. I wouldn't let you by without a hug.’”
“It was very touching. Here at the most crucial moment, she had the presence of mind and the courage to act with excellence as it was required. It's a beautiful quality, and we have our lives to thank for it."
The National Transportation Safety Board sent investigators the next morning to determine the cause of engine failure. They found out that parts of the protective engine housing had broken off mid-flight and were recovered in Berks County, Pennsylvania, roughly 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia International Airport where the plane eventually landed.
Southwest Airlines issued a statement the day after the event, acknowledging the efforts of pilot Shults and first officer Darren Ellisor. Both Shults and Ellisor avoided media interviews at the time and gave a joint statement. They were empathetic to the Riordan family who had lost a family member aboard the flight, the one casualty of the engine explosion.
“As Captain and First Officer of the Crew of five who worked to serve our Customers aboard flight 1380 yesterday, we all feel we were simply doing our jobs,” the airline reported in the statement. “Our hearts are heavy. On behalf of the entire Crew, we appreciate the outpouring of support from the public and our coworkers as we all reflect on one family’s profound loss.”
Lesson 2. Personal Drive
Tammie Jo Shults already had a list of remarkable achievements prior to her heroic act on the Southwest Airline flight. She was among the first female fighter pilots for the U.S. Navy, according to her alma mater, MidAmerica Nazarene University. After graduating college, Shults flew planes for the navy and was one of the first women pilots to fly tactical aircraft. She finished her flight training in Pensacola, Florida and then became an instructor pilot on planes including the F/A-18 Hornet in Point Mugu, California.
A decorated pilot who won medals such as the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, National Defense Service Medal and an expert pistol Marksmanship Medal, Shults pursued a career in aviation when it was extremely rare to see a woman pilot. In fact, in the book “Military Fly Moms,” by Linda Maloney, Shults shared how she attended an aviation lecture as a senior in high school in 1979 and a retired colonel started the class by asking her if she was lost. Tammie Jo Bonnell (her maiden name) was the only girl in attendance. Shults responded that she wanted to fly, and while the colonel let her stay, he told her that there were no professional women pilots.
Shults was determined to fly though. The Air Force did not show any interest in her, but the Navy allowed her application. Still there was not much of a demand for women pilots. It took her a year to get a recruiter to process her application, but Tammie Jo did not give up. She got into aviation school in Pensacola and then was assigned as an instructor pilot to a training squadron at Naval Air Station Chase Field in Beeville, Texas. Soon after, she met her best friend and future husband, a fellow naval aviator pilot, Dean Shults.
Tammie Jo Shults still could not fly in a combat squadron like her husband due to the combat exclusion law. She was allowed to provide electronic warfare training to Navy ships and aircraft. She persisted and eventually became one of the first women to fly the F/A-18 Hornet in a support role. After ten years, she achieved the rank of Navy lieutenant commander. In 1993, she retired from the Navy and along with her husband, began flying commercial airlines.
Her brother-in-law, Gary Shults, in an interview with the Associated Press, called Tammie a “formidable woman, as sharp as a tack. My brother says she’s the best pilot he knows. She’s a very caring, giving person who takes care of lots of people.”
Lesson 3. Grace and Humility
After the safe landing, both Shults and her co-pilot, Darren Ellisor, gave a joint statement to the public via their airline. They downplayed their heroism and focused on the passengers and community. Shults retained this composure, humility and high integrity in interviews finally granted with ABC and Time magazine.
Her quick thinking and grace under pressure will always be remembered by the passengers aboard that plane and their loved ones.