The airline industry is reeling from the first fatality on a U.S. commercial airline since 2009, and Southwest Airlines is scrambling to inspect its fleet's engines after an engine on a Southwest Airlines plane failed, causing one death and triggering an emergency landing. A hero, however, has arisen from the incident: Captain Tammie Jo Shults, who used her Navy pilot background and level head to safely control the airplane in the immediate aftermath of the explosion and then to safely land the plane after part of the Boeing 737-700's engine blew apart. Many believe the outcome of the terrifying incident, which killed one person and injured seven others, could have been much worse without Shults' clear thinking and quick actions.
Panic in the Cabin Following Engine Failure on Southwest Flight
The passengers aboard Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 could never have known how the day would unfold. They boarded the 737 at La Guardia Airport in New York on April 17, 2018, and the plane departed at 10:43 a.m. bound for Dallas. As the plane reached about 32,500 feet, things began to go wrong.
Shrapnel from one of the plane’s engines, which are required, by design, to contain the broken parts in such incidents, broke out and into the fuselage and wing. It hammered into one of the plane's windows, smashing the window and partially sucking out a female passenger.
According to Robert Sumwalt, the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), a preliminary investigation into the incident revealed that a fan blade was missing from the engine and had separated at the point where it would connect to the hub. Sumwalt also said there was some evidence of metal fatigue.
Jennifer Riordan, a mother of two and Wells Fargo executive, was pulled partially through the broken window. Max Kraidelman, a 20-year-old passenger on Flight 1380, spoke with the New York Times about watching the events unfold.
According to Kraidelman, the flight attendants worked with other passengers to drag Riordan back into the plane. They were able to do so, but she was unconscious and had sustained serious, ultimately fatal, injuries.
Just twenty-two minutes after the engine blew apart, Southwest Flight 1380 successfully made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport. Riordan was taken to the hospital, but she died from her injuries.
Audio Recordings from Flight 1380 Capture Captain’s Calm Amidst Chaos
The people in the cabin may have felt panic, but at the front of the plane, Captain Tammie Jo Shults was an entirely different story.
Shults, who was formerly a pilot in the Navy, can be heard in audio recordings discussing the incident and her plan to safely land the plane. She uses measured tones that do little to give away how harrowing the moments were.
Throughout her conversation with air traffic control, the even-keeled Southwest Airlines pilot is heard calmly stating that part of the aircraft is missing and that she'll have to slow down as she maneuvers the Boeing 737 to the ground. An interaction captured between Shults and air traffic control at 11:17 a.m. shows the severity of the situation, and that even then the captain remained calm.Tammy Jo Shults - The pilot who was hailed a 'hero' after successfully landing a stricken plane after a mid-air explosion was one of the first female fighter pilots in the US Navy. A True American Hero! #SWA pic.twitter.com/YaptAWj88p— Kevin Brigandi (@KevinBrigandi) April 18, 2018
Captain Shults: OK, could you have the medical meet us there on the runway, as well? We’ve got, uh, injured passengers.
Air Traffic Control: Injured passengers, OK. And are you — is your airplane physically on fire?
Captain Shults: No, it's not on fire, but part of it's missing. [Pause] They said there was a hole and, uh, someone went out.
Air Traffic Control: Um, I’m sorry, you said there was a hole and somebody went out? [Pause] Southwest 1380, it doesn’t matter. We’ll work it out there. So, the airport's just off to your right, report it in sight, please.
Captain Shults: Southwest 1380, airport's in sight.
Passengers Praise Captain Shults for Her Heroics in Landing Damaged Boeing Plane
Passengers aboard Flight 1380 were grateful for Shults' calculated response to the incident. Many spoke to the media and took to sites like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to thank Shults and acknowledge her actions.
Diana McBride Self was one of those passengers, saying on Facebook:
"Tammie Jo Schults [sic], the pilot came back to speak to each of us personally. This is a true American Hero. A huge thank you for her knowledge, guidance and bravery in a traumatic situation."
Alfred Tumlinson, a Texas man who was also aboard the flight, told the Associated Press that Shults had "nerves of steel."
"That lady, I applaud her," Tumlinson said. "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."
Southwest Releases Statement from Captain Shults and First Officer Darren Ellisor
Shults has not spoken publicly about the April 17th incident since it occurred, but Southwest Airlines posted a statement from both Shults and the flight's first officer, Darren Ellisor, on the company's Twitter account on April 18, 2018.
Please see below a statement from the Captain and First Officer of Flight 1380. pic.twitter.com/RjoCpucGGS— Southwest Airlines (@SouthwestAir) April 19, 2018
As Captain and First Officer of the Crew of five who worked to serve our Customers aboard Flight 1380 yesterday, we all feel we were simply doing our jobs. Our hearts are heavy. On behalf of the entire Crew, we appreciate the outpouring of support from the public and our coworkers as we all reflect on one family’s profound loss. We joined our Company today in focused work and interviews with investigators. We are not conducting media interview and we ask that the public and the media respect our focus.
Captain Shults Loved Flying Since Her Youth
Shults' quick thinking and careful response to the tragedy on Southwest 1380 come after a lifetime spent pursuing a career as a pilot.
Originally from Tularosa, New Mexico, Shults lived not far from Holloman Air Force Base and knew early on she wanted to be a pilot. She even attempted to take part in aviation career day at Tularosa High School while a student there, but was told they did not accept girls.
Shults eventually decided to attend MidAmerica Nazarene University and studied biology and agribusiness, but her dream of becoming a pilot prevailed, and after discovering a girl in the Air Force class of a friend's brother, applied to join.
The Air Force, however, would not allow Shults to take the test to become a pilot, and so she turned to the Navy, where she would become one of the first female fighter pilots for the U.S. Navy and one of the first women to pilot an F-18. Shults went on to become an instructor pilot with the Navy before resigning her commission in 1993 and joining Southwest Airlines as a pilot.
Longtime friends of Shults say that the calm and composed demeanor she exhibited during the emergency is nothing new. According to them, that's how she operates.
"That’s what she does, and she's good at it," Kim Young, a friend of Shults, told the Kansas City Star.