Shared from the 4/19/2018 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Southwest pilot guided by faith

Friends are not surprised she kept composure

Courtesy, Linda Malone

Tammie Jo Shults, aformer Navy pilot, guided her damaged plane to an emergency landing.

SAN ANTONIO — The seat belt sign was still on as 144 passengers and five crew members were settling in aboard a flight from New York to Dallas when registered nurse Peggy Phillips heard a noise and guessed, correctly, that an engine had exploded.

At the controls Tuesday morning was Tammie Jo Shults, a former Navy fighter pilot who suddenly had to guide Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 to an emergency landing on its one remaining engine.

The Boeing 737 was shaking and shuddering. Pieces of the engine shattered a window and injured a passenger. The rapid decompression sucked her partially through the window before others pulled her back.

“It was not like any noise I’ve ever heard in my life. … pretty close to a jackhammer that had a different tone to it,” said Phillips, 68, of Dallas. “It was incredibly loud.”

Jennifer Riordan of Albuquerque died despite efforts by Phillips and two others who performed CPR during a terrifying descent and landing in Philadelphia, where paramedics boarded the plane.

But Shults, 56, who greeted and hugged passengers after the ordeal, kept a bad situation from becoming much worse. A recording of her steady, matter-of-fact conversation with air traffic controllers went viral, making her an instant national hero.

She had years of experience as one of the Navy’s first female aviators who later served as an F/ A18 Hornet instructor in which she played an “aggressor” pilot in mock dogfights.

Calm in crisis

In Boerne, a town northwest of San Antonio, Shults and her husband Dean, 53, also a Southwest Airlines pilot, have earned a reputation as a strongly religious, community-minded couple. They live in a Kendall County subdivision with two children, both young adults.

Friends and neighbors said the unruffled Tammie Jo Shults they heard in the cockpit recordings is the person they’ve always known — polite, approachable, practical, never one to raise her voice.

“OK, could you have the medical meet us there on the runway as well? We’ve got injured passengers,” Shults told a flight controller.

“Injured passengers, OK, and is your airplane physically on fire?” he replied.

“No, it’s not on fire,” Shults said. “But part of it’s missing.”

Longtime friend Staci Thompson, 38, heard that and was not surprised at Shults’ calmness during crisis.

“It sounds just like a normal conversation with her on the phone,” Thompson said.

“She has strength of character and faith in God,” said Kim Young, who has known the family since they moved to the area about15 years ago.

“I was curious when I first listened to it (to see) if I would recognize her voice. She was calm, she was collected and she was getting the job done. She was doing what was needed to be done. She’s a talented woman.”

“She was so incredibly calm,” Phillips said of the audio clips. “She was a rock star. She really was.”

Big heart, giving spirit

Southwest Flight 1380 was flying from New York’s La Guardia Airport to Dallas Love Field. The cause of the explosion is under investigation.

Southwest said it had accelerated an engine inspection program “out of an abundance of caution” and expected to complete it over the next month. The airline, in a statement, said it would conduct ultrasonic inspections of fan blades in the CFM56 engine used in the 737-700.

Shults and First Officer Darren Ellisor of League City issued a statement late Wednesday: "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," their joint statement said.

"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.”

Thompson, an administrator with First Baptist Church in Boerne who has known the family 21 years, said Dean Shults told her that his wife feels for the family of Riordan, the woman who died. “It weghs heavy on her heart,” Thompson said.

Calling her friend a woman with a big heart and giving spirit, Thompson said the Shults’ are involved with the church, and that Tammie Jo is a regular volunteer at Meadowland Charter School.

The school takes in at-risk youths who have either dropped out of regular schools or have had problems in the foster care system.

Tammi Escajeda, a teacher at Meadowland, said Shults visits the school on Fridays, describing to students the things she’s done, places she has flown, her responsibilities in the cockpit, as well as teaching handwriting techniques and basic manners.

Shults is also good finding developmentally appropriate material for the mix of second-, third- and fourth-graders she is teaching, Escajeda added. And sometimes, she said, Shults brings her son to help because kids need more one-on-one instruction.

“Even when children are testing her limits she remains calm and quick and easy to redirect them,” he said. “Her calmness is what makes her great with working with at-risk youth.”

In love with flying

People have said Shults has had a longtime love affair with flying. The lessons started early on, when she entered the Navy in 1985. In those days women were forbidden from serving in combat aviation jobs, but Navy Cmdr. Ron Flanders said Shults was among the first to transition to tactical aircraft.

Shults went to Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Fla., and later trained in Corpus Christi and Beeville before reporting to Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 34 in Point Mugu, Calif., in 1989.

The Navy said she was there until 1991, and then transferred to Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif., where she learned to fly the F/A-18. She left active duty in 1993 and joined a strike fighter wing in the Navy Reserve.

The training, then and now, is intense, involving simulated emergencies that test a pilot’s recollection and ability to quickly respond without mistakes.

“That was pretty impressive,” Cmdr. Cris Perham, an instructor pilot at Naval Air Station Kingsville, said after listening to Shults interact with flight controllers Tuesday.

“In the Navy,” Perham said, “we spend a lot of time in the trainers going over emergencies, what they can expect, to the point where — I’m not going to say that when someone gets into an emergency they’re always calm and collected — but we definitely try to focus on the problem and how to resolve it.”

Express-News researchers Misty

Harris and Mike Knoop and staff writer Zeke MacCormack contributed to this report.

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