It should come as no surprise that the heroic pilot who landed a stricken Southwest Airlines 737 after its engine exploded and shattered a window is former Navy fighter pilot.
Tammie Jo Shults, who was reportedly at the controls of Flight 1380 during the April 17 in-flight emergency, was one of the Navy’s first F/A-18 Hornet pilots and left the service in 1993 as a lieutenant commander, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday. The plane’s co-pilot is also reportedly a veteran: Darren Ellisor served in the Air Force, according to Newsweek.
Growing up, Shults dreamed of becoming a military pilot, but the Air Force showed no interest in her. So she eventually became a Navy aviator, the Post reported. During training, she still had to overcome the military’s bias against female pilots.
“In ACOS [Aviation Officer Candidate School], if you’re a woman … you’re under more scrutiny,” then-Lt. Shults told the Navy’s “All Hands” magazine in 1993.
At the time, Shults was assigned to Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 34, an electronic aggressor squadron, “All Hands” reported. She said gender was not an issue within her squadron, but female pilots still faced limited opportunities in Navy aviation.
“It would be nice if they would take away the ceilings [women] have over our heads,” she told the magazine.
Southwest Airlines declined to officially say that Shults was the pilot of Flight 1380. “We are not sharing details about the flight crew, though we couldn’t be more proud of their actions,” a company spokeswoman told Task & Purpose on Wednesday.
Attempts to reach Shults were unsuccessful. She was commissioned in June 1985 and served on active duty until March 1993, according to her official personnel record, provided by the Navy. Shults continued to serve as a reservist until August 2001. Her military awards include two Navy Marine Corps Achievement Medals, the National Defense Service Medal and the Pistol Marksmanship Medal (Expert).
Flight 1380 passengers have praised how Shults skillfully landed their plane after it depressurized and how she greeted each passenger after they were safely on the ground.
Audio recordings of Shults talking to an air traffic controller show she kept her calm while bringing the damaged plane in for a landing.
“We have part of the aircraft missing so we’re going to need to slow down a bit,” she told air traffic control. “Could you have medical meet us there on the runway as well? We’ve got injured passengers.”
When the air traffic controller asked if the plane was on fire, Shults responded carefully and respectfully: “No, it’s not on fire but part of it is missing. They said there is a hole and someone went out.”
Rep. Martha McSally, a fellow fighter pilot, praised Shults as a “bad-ass” who showed extraordinary courage when the lives of more than 100 passengers and crew were at risk.
“I am so proud of her,” said McSally, R-Ariz. “The world is seeing that the attributes that both or men and women have as they go through military training to be a pilot are those where we are trained over and over again and over again to make sure we know exactly what to do in the most harrowing of circumstances.
“We make good decisions. We fly the airplane while we’re working through checklists. We analyze situations. We figure out how to safely on the ground and minimize any damage – and we do it in our sleep. The training that we go through from our first day of flight school is just to be able to do it unconsciously in case anything happens and she really demonstrated that in this emergency.”
McSally is a trailblazer herself: She is both the U.S. military’s first female pilot to fly a combat mission and the first woman to command a fighter squadron in combat, according to her online biography. She said it is cruel that Shults was not allowed to fly fighters in combat because of the law at the time.
“They should have,” McSally said. “Her courage and her calmness under pressure that she showed from all of her years of experience is just a reminder that it doesn’t matter if you are a boy or a girl; the airplane doesn’t care if you have ovaries or not, as long as you have the qualifications and the training you’re going to be able to complete the mission – and she did that yesterday.”