Southwest Pilot Who Made Emergency Landing Was One of the First Female Pilots in the Navy

Tammie Jo Shults is a hero. She's the pilot who made an emergency landing on April 17 when Southwest flight 1380 took a turn for the worse after a part of the engine exploded, causing debris to shatter one of the plane's windows. Passengers' worst nightmare came true as they gripped oxygen masks and braced for impact, while copilot Shults made sense of the chaos from the cockpit. One passenger, mom of two Jennifer Riordan, tragically died, and seven others were injured. Riordan was partially sucked out of the broken window and was pulled back in by other passengers; she later died at a Philadelphia hospital.

The successful, impromptu landing prevented what could have been a much larger tragedy, and Shults certainly had the necessary skills for the occasion. She was one of the first female pilots in the US Navy and the first to fly an F/A-18 Hornet fighter aircraft for the Navy. Passengers on the Southwest flight are praising Shults for her "nerves of steel" and efficiency in handling the landing of the aircraft, which had 149 people on board. "The lady, the crew, everything, everybody was immaculate. They were so professional in what they did to get us on the ground," passenger Alfred Tumlinson told the Associated Press. The plane touched ground at Philadelphia International Airport approximately 12 or 13 minutes after the engine exploded, CNN reports.

Passionate about flying from an early age, Shults was the only female to attend an aviation lecture during her senior year of high school. At the time, someone asked her "if she was lost," the Washington Post reports. Friends and colleagues of Shults are not surprised by her calm demeanor and achievement on Tuesday. "She said she wasn't going to let anyone tell her she couldn't," Cindy Foster, a former college classmate, told the Kansas City Star.

Last year, Shults gave an empowering speech to students at her alma mater, MidAmerica Nazarene University, where she advocated for diversity in male-dominated fields. "She had tenacity to do something that excelled beyond the norm of what women were allowed or expected to do," Kevin Garber, director of alumni relations, told the Kansas City publication. "She pushed the limits and became what she strived for."

Shults tells her story in Military Fly Moms: Sharing Memories, Building Legacies, Inspiring Hope, a 2012 book by Linda Maloney that showcases stories from 70 women who dreamed of becoming both a military aviator and a mom.