By Grace Donnelly
April 18, 2018

Southwest Airlines flight 1380, forced to make an emergency landing Tuesday, was guided to safety by veteran pilot Tammie Jo Shults.

After the left engine blew out, debris pierced the window of the Boeing 737-700, causing the cabin to lose pressure.

The accident left one passenger, Jennifer Riordan, dead — the first aviation fatality in the U.S. in more than nine years — and seven others injured. Shults remained calm and professional, landing the plane safely at the Philadelphia International Airport and stopping to speak to each of the 148 people on board whose lives were saved.

Her voice on the radio transmission with the air traffic controller is measured and matter-of-fact even as she describes the engine failure and the hole it caused in the cabin.

“She has nerves of steel,” passenger Alfred Tumlinson told the Associated Press.

Shults is one of more than 42,000 women who hold an active airmen certificate. Women accounted for just 7% of all civil pilots in 2017, according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

She began her career flying for the Navy and is now among the 6.4% of commercial pilots who are women, according to FAA data.

As a child, Shults saw the daily air shows at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. She knew from a young age that she wanted to fly.

The story of what it took for Shults to get her wings shows part of why the number of women in the air remains so low.

When she attended a lecture as a senior in high school in 1979 to learn more about the Air Force, she was the only girl in attendance and the retired colonel asked her if she was lost. The Air Force “wasn’t interested” in talking to her, Shults said in the book Military Fly Moms, by Linda Maloney, but she was able to apply to fly for the Navy.

A year after taking the aviation exam she finally found a recruiter who would process her application. As a woman, Shults wasn’t allowed to fly in combat missions, but she served as an instructor training other pilots and providing electronic warfare training to Navy personnel.

She was one of the first women to fly an F/Z-18 Hornet, then the newest fighter plane, for the Navy.

“She said she wasn’t going to let anyone tell her she couldn’t,” college classmate Cindy Foster told the Kansas City Star. “She did it for herself and all women fighting for a chance.”

After 10 years in the Navy, Shults left in 1993 and now lives in the San Antonio area with her husband, Dean, who is also a pilot for Southwest Airlines. They have two children.

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

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