Who is Tammie Jo Shults, the pilot with “nerves of steel” who calmly landed Southwest flight 1380?

On Tuesday, April 17th, Dallas-bound Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 experienced an engine failure at 30,000 feet, having just departed from New York. One of the Boeing 737’s engines blew out, and shrapnel pierced the aircraft’s wall and shattered a window. Seven passengers were injured and another, later identified as Jennifer Riordan, was unfortunately killed. The plane’s pilot, Tammie Jo Shults, made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport, saving the other 148 passengers on board.

Shults, a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot, radioed down to air traffic control moments after the engine exploded. She asked for medical personnel to meet the plane on the runway once landed.

"We’ve got injured passengers," Shults told air traffic control, according to The Washington Post. The man on the other end asked if the plane was on fire. "No, it’s not on fire, but part of it’s missing. They said there’s a hole, and uh, someone went out."

The pilot who guided the plane to safety was initially left unnamed as reports of the incident rolled. But the Post reports that passengers later identified the “true American Hero,” as one passenger wrote on Facebook, as Tammie Jo Shults. Another passenger told the Associated Press that Shults has “nerves of steel.”

Shults graduated from MidAmerica Nazarene University in 1983 and went on to become one of the first female fighter pilots in the U.S. Navy. A former college classmate told the Kansas City Star that Shults was also one of the first women to fly an F/A-18 Hornet for the Navy.

In 1979, during her senior year of high school, Shults attended an aviation lecture hoping to learn more about the career path she felt she was destined for. Shults was the only woman in the room. The lecturer, a retired colonel, asked her if she was lost.

"I mustered up the courage to assure him I was not and that I was interested in flying," she wrote in Linda Maloney's 2012 book Military Fly Moms. "He allowed me to stay but assured me there were no professional women pilots."

Shults initially had her sights set on flying for the Air Force, but they were apparently less-than-receptive to a female pilot at the time. She finally convinced a Navy recruiter to consider her application. She was assigned to a training squadron at Naval Air Station Chase Field in Beeville, Texas where she worked as an instructor pilot and taught student aviators how to fly the Navy T-2 trainer.

Under the combat exclusion law, Shults was not allowed to fly in a combat squadron like her husband Dean Shults, who also currently pilots for Southwest Airlines. However, Shults still managed to climb the Navy ladder and reach the rank of Navy lieutenant commander.

After 10 years of service, Shults left the Navy in 1993. She and her husband moved to San Antonio and raised two children.

Shults tapped into her determination for greatness in a different way on Tuesday. Thanks to her skills, over 100 people were able to safely return home to their loved ones, and we’re just so thankful that heroes like Shults exist in the world.

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