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Tammie Jo Shults, who landed crippled Southwest plane, was one of first female fighter pilots in U.S. Navy

One passenger was killed and seven others were injured, but the toll could have been much higher had it not been for Shults' quick thinking.
by Elizabeth Chuck and Shamar Walters /  / Updated 
Image: U.S. Navy photo of Southwest Airlines pilot Tammie Jo Shults photo in 1992
U.S. Navy Lt. Tammie Jo Shults poses in front of a Navy F/A-18A in 1992.Thomas P. Milne / U.S. Navy via Reuters

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The pilot who coolly landed a crippled Southwest Airlines plane after a blown engine sent shrapnel through one of the jet's windows midflight has gone against the odds before.

Identified by The Associated Press as Tammie Jo Shults, she wasted no time rapidly lowering the plane toward safety when chaos broke out shortly after takeoff Tuesday from New York — maintaining her composure even as passengers reported from the cabin that a woman had been partly sucked out of a shattered window.

"We have part of the aircraft missing, so we're going to need to slow down a bit," Shults is heard calmly telling air traffic controllers in audio transmissions after reporting the aircraft's engine failure.

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"Could you have medical meet us there on the runway, as well? We've got injured passengers," Shults requests.

The air traffic controller then asks her whether her plane is on fire, to which Shults calmly replies: "No, it's not on fire, but part of it's missing. They said there's a hole, and — uh — someone went out."

That passenger was killed: an Albuquerque, New Mexico, woman identified by her family as Jennifer Riordan, 43. Seven others suffered minor injuries, authorities said.

But many say the toll on Dallas-bound Flight 1380, which had 149 people aboard, would have been much higher had it not been for Shults' quick thinking during her emergency landing in Philadelphia.

"Most of us, when that engine blew, I think we were pretty much going, 'Well, this just might be it,' " said passenger Peggy Phillips, a retired nurse from Brandon, Texas. "To get us down with no hydraulics and a blown engine and land us safely is nothing short of miraculous to me. She's a hero, for sure."

(Investigative sources told NBC News that there's no indication that the plane lost hydraulics.)

Those aboard described a horrific scene after the engine blew and shattered the jet window. The cabin suddenly depressurized, and Riordan was partly sucked out of the open window, they said.

Passenger Eric Zilbert said a group of passengers leaped out of their seats to pull her back in.

"There were several heroic gentlemen who pulled her back through the window and administered CPR," he said.

"Most of us, when that engine blew, I think we were pretty much going, 'Well, this just might be it... She's a hero, for sure."

"Most of us, when that engine blew, I think we were pretty much going, 'Well, this just might be it... She's a hero, for sure."

Phillips also helped perform CPR until the plane landed, but she said Riordan's injuries were ultimately too severe.

Meanwhile, at the controls, Shults was relying on her fighter pilot training — and her history of defying the odds — to safely land the Boeing 737.

Shults, 56, is a 1983 graduate of MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas, receiving her degree in biology and agribusiness, said Carol Best, a spokeswoman for the university.

Shults then became one of the first female fighter pilots in the U.S. military, according to the alumni group at her alma mater. The Navy confirmed that she was among the first female pilots to make the transition to tactical aircraft after completing flight training in Pensacola, Florida.

Shults said in a joint statement with First Officer Darren Ellisor Wednesday that "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," they said in the statement. "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."

Cindy Foster, a classmate of Shults', told The Kansas City Star that when Shults enlisted in the Navy, she encountered "a lot of resistance" because of her gender. She was passionate about flying and dreamed of being in the Air Force, but she went to the Navy instead after the Air Force denied her a chance, Foster added.

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"So she knew she had to work harder than everyone else," Foster told The Star. "She did it for herself and all women fighting for a chance."

In addition to being among the first female fighter pilots, Shults was the first woman to fly an F/A-18 Hornet for the Navy, Foster told the paper.

Afterward, she trained military pilots and then got hired as a pilot for Southwest, the paper reported.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 6.2 percent of commercial pilots in the United States are women. But those close to Shults say she's always had the skills necessary to perform the job.

"She's a formidable woman, as sharp as a tack," Gary Shults, Shults' brother-in-law, told The Associated Press.

He said Shults' husband, his brother, is also a Southwest pilot.

"My brother says she's the best pilot he knows. She's a very caring, giving person who takes care of lots of people," he said.

MidAmerica Nazarene's director of alumni relations, Kevin Garber, said Shults traveled to campus last spring from her home in Texas to talk with students about her career. He described her as a "solid woman of faith" and very down to earth.

"The nature of her talk was sharing her life journey and life path and encouraging female students to pursue their dreams and don't give up. You can arrive at that next level," Garber said. "Students were inspired by her tenacity, her motivation, her determination."

"She's just an excellent role model for women, certainly in the workplace, and just people in general," he added.

Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said at a news conference Wednesday that when the engine failed, the plane began a "rapid, uncommanded left roll" as steep as 41 degrees. The typical maximum is only about 20 degrees, he said, so "it would be alarming."

Sumwalt said he flew the 737-700 for a decade when he was a commercial pilot and was impressed by what he heard on radio communications from the cockpit.

"You could hear their intonation. The pilots seemed very calm and assured about what they're doing," Sumwalt said.

"My hat is off to them," he said. "They behaved in a manner that their training would prepare them for."

Passenger Sheri Sears described the descent down to Philadelphia as chaotic, but also praised the flight crew.

"There was insulation flying everywhere," she said. "The passengers were amazing. They stayed remarkably calm. The flight attendants were so courageous. And that pilot — I give it out to her. I mean, wow."

After Flight 1380's emergency landing, Shults walked down the aisle and checked in on passengers, travelers said.

Matt Tranchin, 34, of Dallas, said the travelers burst into applause once they landed.

"There was a lot of hugging," he said. "I personally hugged the pilot. I think just relief — relief that we get to live for another day."

Southwest Airlines and Shults declined to be interviewed by NBC News on Wednesday.

Riordan died of blunt force impact trauma to the head, neck and torso, the medical examiner's office said in a statement to NBC Philadelphia.

On Tuesday evening, Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly offered condolences to Riordan's family, calling it "a sad day." He added, "I do want to thank and commend our flight crew for their swift action and for safely landing the aircraft."

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao also extended sympathies and said in a statement, "I commend the pilots who safely landed the aircraft, and the crew and fellow passengers who provided support and care for the injured, preventing what could have been far worse."

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