The pilot who coolly landed a Southwest Airlines plane after one of the jet’s engines failed and torpedoed shrapnel through a window midflight has gone against the odds before.
Identified by The Associated Press as Tammie Jo Shults, she wasted no time steering the plane into a rapid descent toward safety when chaos broke out shortly after takeoff from New York — maintaining her composure even as passengers reported from the cabin that a woman had been partially sucked out of a shattered window.
“We have part of the aircraft missing, so we’re going to need to slow down a bit,” she’s heard calmly telling air traffic controllers in audio transmissions after reporting the aircraft’s engine failure.
“Could you have medical meet us there on the runway as well? We’ve got injured passengers,” Shults then requests.
A air traffic controller asks her if 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.”
One passenger was killed, and 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.
–Southwest Airlines pilot Tammie Jo Shults. Kevin Garber / MidAmerica Nazarene University
“Most of us, when that engine blew, I think we were pretty much going, ‘Well, this just might be it.'”
“Most of us, when that engine blew, I think we were pretty much going, ‘Well, this just might be it,'” said passenger Peggy Phillips, 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 there’s no indication the plane lost hydraulics.)
A 1983 graduate of MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas, Shults, 56, received 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.
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 went to the Navy instead after the Air Force denied her a chance, Foster added.
“So she knew she had to work harder than everyone else,” Foster told the paper. “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 Kansas City Star.
She then trained military pilots before she was hired as a pilot for Southwest, the paper reported.
Southwest Airlines and Shults declined to be interviewed by NBC News on Wednesday.
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.
Female pilots are a minority in their field: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 6.2 percent of commercial pilots in the U.S. are female.
But those close to her said 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 AP.
He said that Shults’ husband 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.
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.”
The passengers also described horror in the moments after the plane’s window was shattered. Eric Zilbert told NBC News that a woman was “partially sucked out” of the plane as the cabin suddenly depressurized, and said a group of passengers leapt over to pull the woman back in.
“There were several heroic gentlemen who pulled her back through the window and administered CPR,” he said.
The passenger who died was identified by her family as Jennifer Riordan. Southwest CEO Gary Kelly on Tuesday evening offered condolences to her relatives, calling it “a sad day,” and added, ” I do want to thank and commend our flight crew for their swift action and for safely landing the aircraft.”
U.S. 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.”
Passenger Sheri Sears described the descent as chaotic but 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.”