Pilot of Southwest Flight with Blown Engine Was Navy Fighter Pilot

National Transportation Safety Board investigators examine damage to the engine of the Southwest Airlines plane that made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. The Southwest Airlines jet blew the engine at 32,000 feet and got hit by shrapnel that smashed a window, setting off a desperate scramble by passengers to save a woman from getting sucked out. She later died, and seven others were injured. (NTSB via AP)
National Transportation Safety Board investigators examine damage to the engine of the Southwest Airlines plane that made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. The Southwest Airlines jet blew the engine at 32,000 feet and got hit by shrapnel that smashed a window, setting off a desperate scramble by passengers to save a woman from getting sucked out. She later died, and seven others were injured. (NTSB via AP)

The Southwest pilot being hailed as a hero for landing a crippled Southwest plane was among the first female fighter pilots to serve in the military.

Tammie Jo Shults was at the helm of a twin-engine Boeing 737 bound from New York to Dallas on Tuesday with 149 people aboard when one of the aircraft's engines blew.

At 32,000 feet, shrapnel from the blown engine smashed a window, setting off a desperate scramble by passengers to save a woman from getting sucked out.

Shults took the plane into a rapid descent and made an emergency landing in Philadelphia as passengers using oxygen masks that dropped from the ceiling said their prayers and braced for impact.

One person was killed, and seven were hospitalized with minor injuries, authorities said.

Shults was among the first female fighter pilots in the U.S. Navy, according to friends and the alumni group at Shults' alma mater, MidAmerica Nazarene.

She was a 1983 graduate of the university in Olathe, where she earned degrees in biology and agribusiness, said Carol Best, a university spokeswoman.

Cindy Foster, a classmate of Shults' at MidAmerica who graduated the same year, said Shults enlisted in the Navy and was met with "a lot of resistance" because of her gender. She'd always had a love for flying, and she chose the Navy only after the Air Force denied her a chance to become a pilot, Foster said.

"So she knew she had to work harder than everyone else," Foster said. "She did it for herself and all women fighting for a chance. ... I'm extremely proud of her. She saved a lot of lives today."

Foster said that not only was Shults among the first female fighter pilots, she was the first woman to fly an F/A-18 Hornet for the Navy.

Shults transitioned to training pilots in the military before becoming a pilot for Southwest Airlines.

Foster recalled Shults' calm demeanor and disciplined lifestyle, remembering their days on the college volleyball team. Later, Shults was in Foster's wedding.

"She said she wasn't going to let anyone tell her she couldn't," Foster said.

Kim Young, another longtime friend of Shults', said she wasn't surprised by Shults' composure during the emergency.

"Those are the kinds of people you want as pilots," she said. "That's what she does, and she's good at it."

Young said Shults' military training prepared her to handle the emergency calmly.

Kevin Garber, the director of alumni relations for MidAmerica Nazarene, said Shults gave a speech to about 30 people last spring on campus.

Garber recalled how Shults advocated for diversity in the workforce and encouraged women to crack through in male-dominated fields.

"She had tenacity to do something that excelled beyond the norm of what women were allowed or expected to do," Garber said of Shults' success as a pilot. "She pushed the limits and became what she strived for."

Shults was commended by passengers for her cool-headed handling of the emergency.

Her voice remained calm as she communicated with air traffic control in Philadelphia.

"She had nerves of steel," said passenger Alfred Tumlinson.

Added Eric Zilbert, another passenger, "The plane was steady as a rock after (the engine blew). I didn't have any fear that it was out of control."

Diana McBride Self, who wrote on Facebook that she was aboard Flight 1380, thanked Shults for navigating the plane to safety.

"Her grace and knowledge under pressure were remarkable," she wrote. "She came through the plane personally to check on us after she landed our crippled airplane. ... We were truly all in amazing hands."

Shults grew up in New Mexico, lives outside San Antonio and is married to a pilot.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

This article is written by Max Londberg from The Kansas City Star and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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