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“There is a hole, and, uh, someone went out,” Captain Tammie Jo Shults calmly stated to Air Traffic Control as Southwest Flight 1380 had one engine blow out and its shrapnel break a window and almost suck a passenger out of the plane.

That passenger, Jennifer Riordan, later died from her injuries. Seven other passengers on board Southwest Flight 1380 were also injured by the engine explosion, which could have been caused by metal fatigue. But, the veteran Navy pilot’s calm demeanor as she diverted the Boeing 737-700 for an emergency landing in Philadelphia (PHL) saved the lives of the other 148 passengers.

Shults, who was one of the first women ever to fly a Navy F/A-18 fighter jet, greeted each passenger as they left the plane, which was met by medical personnel on the tarmac. Her passengers were grateful for staying calm and her grace under pressure.

“She has nerves of steel,” passenger Alfred Tumlinson said to the AP. “That lady, I applaud her. I’m going to send her a Christmas card — I’m going to tell you that — with a gift certificate for getting me on the ground. She was awesome.”

Diana McBride Self thanked Shults on Facebook, and called her a “true American hero.” “A huge thank you for her knowledge, guidance and bravery in a traumatic situation,” the post continued. “God bless her and all the crew.”

Capt. Tammy Jo Shults on board flight 1380 (From Diana McBride Self/Facebook)

According to her Navy service record, Shults trained as a pilot in the Navy in Pensacola, Florida. She was commissioned as a pilot in the Navy in 1985, and served at the Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron in Point Mugu, California, as an instructor pilot flying the EA-6B Prowler and F/A-18 Hornet. She progressed to the rank of Lieutenant Commander, and over the course of her service, was awarded two Navy Marine Corps Achievement Medals, a National Defense Service Medal and a Pistol Marksmanship Medal at the Expert level.

She became a commercial pilot with Southwest Airlines in 1993.

Her love of aviation started when she was a little girl growing up near New Mexico’s Holloman Air Force Base, Shults wrote in the 2012 book Military Fly Moms by Linda Maloney. “Some people grow up around aviation. I grew up under it,” she wrote. After watching what she called “the daily air show,” she “just had to fly!” she wrote.

In 1979, when she was a senior in high school, Shults tried to attend aviation career day. The retired colonel started the lecture by asking Shults, the only girl in attendance, if she was lost. “I mustered up the courage to assure him I was not and that I was interested in flying,” Shults wrote. “He allowed me to stay, but assured me there were no professional women pilots.”

She then attended MidAmerica Nazarene, thinking she might go into veterinary medicine. But, she still had the urge to fly. Shults always had a love of flying, said Cindy Foster, her classmate at MidAmerica Nazarene University, to The Kansas City Star“In my junior year I went to an Air Force winging with a friend whose brother was getting his wings,” Shults said in a MidAmerica alumna article, no longer online but posted in this pilots’ forum. “And, lo, there was a girl in his class.”

The experience made Shults’ heart jump, she wrote. “I set to work trying to break into the club.”

Shults graduated from MidAmerica, located in Olathe, Kansas, in 1983 with degrees in biology and agribusiness, a university spokeswoman told the Star. 

Shults decided to try to enlist in the Air Force, but they wouldn’t even let her take the test to become a pilot, asking her if her brother was interested in flying instead. So, she went to the Navy, which let her take the test and fill out the application for aviation officer candidate school.

When she enlisted in the Navy, Shults was met with “a lot of resistance,” because she was a woman, Foster said.

It took her a year to find a Navy recruiter who would process her application, but shortly after, “I was getting my hair buzzed off and doing pushups in aviation officer candidate school in Pensacola, Florida,” she wrote. “I had finally broken into the club!”

“She said she wasn’t going to let anyone tell her she couldn’t,” Foster said.

Tammy Jo Shults on the flight line in 1993. (Picture by Military Fly Moms)

After several years of training, where she met her pilot husband, Dean Shults, she took a support role providing electronic warfare training to Navy ships and aircraft. She learned to fly the Hornet fighter jet, but couldn’t fly in battle due to the combat exclusion law, which prohibited women from flying in a combat squadron. The majority of her training squadron did not have “open-mindedness about flying with women,” Shults wrote.

Given her military training, Shults’ family wasn’t surprised by her ability to handle the mid-air crisis on Flight 1380. Her brother-in-law, Gary Shults, told the AP that she is “a formidable woman, as sharp as a tack.” “My brother says she’s the best pilot he knows,” he continued “She’s a very caring, giving person who takes care of lots of people.”

Shults and her husband, Dean, have two kids and live in the San Antonio, Texas area.

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