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Southwest Airlines captain Tammie Jo Shults catapulted to the forefront of the world’s attention Monday for her calm, controlled handling of Flight 1380. After the Boeing 737-700’s left engine exploded mid-air on April 16, the captain calmly navigated the damaged aircraft to a safe emergency landing at Philadelphia Airport (PHL) amidst a rapid decompression as well as a medical emergency onboard.
Shults also drew the attention of fellow “hero pilot” Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III, whose 2009 “Miracle on the Hudson” landing drew universal applause. Sully, as Sullenberger is affectionately nicknamed, successfully piloted an Airbus A320 suffering dual engine failures into an emergency landing on the Hudson River. All 155 people on board survived. Recognized as one of the most high-profile water landings in aviation history, Sully’s feat was even made into a 2016 film eponymously titled “Sully” starring Tom Hanks.
In an interview Wednesday with The New York Times, Sully said that the presence of mind shown by Captain Shults and her crew impressed him very much. “It’s quite a challenge,” he said. “They would have been very busy all the way down [during the descent].”
Sully, who shares common ground with Shults as a former military pilot, also commented on the difficulties of accomplishing such a complicated emergency landing these days using a commercial aircraft. “It is possible now to go through an entire airline career and never experience an in-flight engine failure,” Sully told The New York Times.
Pilots constantly train for various emergency scenarios mid-flight, including the possibility of midair engine failure. But the number who experience and survive one amounts to “a small club,” he said, especially given the ultra-safe aviation technology available today. “That’s one of the hard things about being a pilot these days when it is so ultra safe,” he said. “How do you remain vigilant enough, how do you have your skills and your own paradigm for how to solve any problem in an airplane even if it is one there is no checklist for?”
One passenger, Jennifer Riordan, died from injuries sustained during Flight 1380’s sudden cabin depressurization, ending a nine-year stretch with no fatalities onboard any US commercial aircraft, as well as Southwest’s 50-year perfect flight record. But the other 148 people onboard Flight 1380 survived, thanks to quick thinking from Captain Shults and her first officer, as well as the flight attendants who worked with passengers with medical training to perform CPR for Riordan.
“These kinds of events are life-changing for everybody on the airplane,” Sully said. “They divide one’s life into before and after.” Yet he praised the entire team’s efforts, saying, “[The flight crew] seem to have done a really good job and remained calm, communicated well, had good teamwork.”
Yet Sully also knows all too well the ordeal that’s yet to come for Flight 1380 crew and passengers alike. There will be eyewitness testimonies for the National Transportation Safety Board, constant requests for interviews from various media outlets. And there will be post-traumatic stress – rapid heartbeats, sleepless nights, triggers that could crop up anywhere.
“I know this process well,” Sully said. “Just because they finished this emergency flight successfully, they aren’t done with this flight yet.”
Featured photo by Getty Images.
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