Cool-handed, level-headed Southwest pilot former Navy aviator

Matt Saintsing
April 18, 2018 - 11:29 am

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The situation aboard Dallas-bound Southwest Flight 1380 on Tuesday looked grim, to say the least. Just 20 minutes into their flight with 143 passengers onboard, travelers say they heard what sounded like explosions, but the pilot, Tammie Jo Shults, landed the plane safely in an emergency landing in Philadelphia. It's no surprise that she's a former U.S. Navy aviator. 

“We have part of the aircraft missing, so we’re going to need to slow down a bit,” Shults said calmly to air traffic control. She also had the wherewithal to request medical personnel on the runway, “We’ve got injured passengers."

Steady hands and a cool demeanor prevailed as Shults can be heard in her conversation with air traffic controllers, which shows just how calm she was while many passengers undoubtedly thought they were in the final moments of their lives.

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With the plane’s left engine on fire, the blasts shattered a window sucking a woman into the hole left by the broken glass. She's been identified by KOAT-TV as 43-year-old Jennifer Riordan of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The National Transportation Safety Board said she was the flight’s only fatality.

Southwest has yet to officially identify Shults as the pilot, but a spokesperson for the airline told Connecting Vets they couldn't be more proud of the crew. Passengers on the flight, however, said she was the pilot, as have members of her family. Virginia Shults, Tammie’s mother-in-law, told The Washington Post she recognized Tammie’s voice right away when she heard the conversation she had with air traffic control.

“It was just as if she and I were sitting here talking. She’s a very calming person,” Virginia told the Post. “Knowing Tammie Jo, I know her heart is broken for the death of that passenger.”

She was one of the first woman fighter pilots in the U.S. Navy, according to MidAmerica Nazarene University, her alma mater.

Shults was surrounded by aviation she says in the book “Military Fly Moms,” by Linda Maloney. “Some people grow up around aviation. I grew up under it,” she said, referencing her childhood on a New Mexico ranch, near Hollman Air Force Base.

Commissioned in the U.S. Navy after graduating from officer candidate school in 1985, she seved in the Tactical Electronics Warfare Squadron in Point Mugu, Calif. as an instructor on the EA-6B Prowler and F/A-18 Hornet, the Navy said in a statement. 

All told, she served 8 years on active duty, which she left in 1993, served two years in the reserve and four years in the inactive reserve. By 2001, she was done with military service, but not aviation.

She now lives in San Antonio with her husband, Dean, who is also a former naval aviator and current Southwest pilot.

Her brother in law, Gary Shults, told the Associated Press she is a “formidable woman, as sharp as a tack.”

“My brother says she’s the best pilot he knows,” Gary said of Tammie. “She’s a very caring, giving person who takes care of lots of people.”

It’s impossible to put ourselves in her position, but once the plane was landed safely in Philadelphia she had the wits to tell the control tower “thank you…thanks, guys, for the help.”