Tammie Jo Shults landed the Southwest flight to safety, but, this Southwest pilot has been breaking glass ceilings for women for years now. From combatting gender bias in the military to having her applications ignored to being the first woman to fly the F/A-18 Hornet, a multirole combat jet – here is a woman we admire.
About 20 minutes after takeoff on Tuesday, Capt. Tammie Jo Shults was steering a Southwest Airlines plane toward cruising altitude, generally considered the safest part of a flight. But then the left engine exploded.
The blast hurled debris into the side of the plane. A passenger window shattered. The cabin depressurized. A woman was partly sucked outside the plane. Passengers panicked and flight attendants sprang into action.
In the cockpit, Captain Shults remained calm as she steadied the aircraft, Flight 1380. “Southwest 1380 has an engine fire,” Captain Shults radioed to air traffic controllers, not a hint of alarm in her voice. “Descending.”
For the next 40 minutes, she displayed what one passenger later called “nerves of steel,” maneuvering the plane toward Philadelphia for an emergency landing.
In the seats behind her, passengers sent goodbye text messages to loved ones, tightened oxygen masks around their faces and braced for impact. Flight attendants frantically performed CPR on the critically injured passenger, who later died at a hospital.
But Captain Shults, 56, was in control. She learned to fly as one of the first female fighter pilots in the Navy three decades ago, piloting the F/A-18 Hornet in an era when women were barred from combat missions.
At 11:20 a.m., Captain Shults steered the plane, a two-engine Boeing 737, to a smooth landing on Runway 27L at Philadelphia International Airport. The left engine looked as if it had been ripped apart.
“This is a true American hero,” Diana McBride Self, a passenger, wrote in a Facebook post. “A huge thank you for her knowledge, guidance and bravery in a traumatic situation. God bless her and all the crew.”
While women still make up a small percentage of commercial pilots, Captain Shults took up flying when there were far fewer in the industry and when women were often told to find other careers. In her junior year at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kan., she attended an Air Force event and spotted a woman in a piloting class, she told an alumni publication.
She graduated from MidAmerica in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and agribusiness and then set off to join the military, the university said on Wednesday. The Air Force would not accept her, she told the publication, but the Navy would. She enrolled in Navy flight school in Pensacola, Fla., in 1985 — the start of a decade of groundbreaking service.
“We can confirm that Lt. Commander Shults was among the first cohort of women pilots to transition to tactical aircraft,” the Navy said in a statement on Wednesday.
She flew the F/A-18 Hornet, the twin-engine supersonic fighter jet and bomber. After flight school, in 1989, she was assigned to the Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 34 in Point Mugu, Calif. During the Gulf War, her squadron was led by the first female air commander in the Navy.
But despite her accomplishments, she came up against the limits placed on women in the military. She left active service on March 31, 1993 — two days before the Navy asked the Clinton administration to open combat assignments to women. She then spent about a year in reserves before leaving the military in 1994, reaching the rank of lieutenant commander.
“She is undoubtedly a pioneer, being a Hornet driver well before the combat exclusion law was lifted,” Ms. Westrich said in an interview. “She kicks ass in my book.”
Read more on nytimes.com and globalcitizen.org.