Although it is a situation no pilot wants to be in, there is a sense that on April 17, 2018, Capt. Tammie Jo Shults was the right person flying Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 from New York to Dallas.
She had worked hard as a child on her family farm, struggled to attend college, fought the system to get into Aviation Officer Candidate School, and become one of the first female F/A-18 Hornet pilots in the U.S. Navy, serving her country for eight years as a pilot and flight instructor. She had flown for Southwest Airlines for almost 30 years.
Now she was struggling to land a Boeing 737 that had blown an engine shortly after takeoff from La Guardia Airport, en route to Love Field.
The first four chapters of her book, Nerves of Steel, deal with her childhood, growing up on farms in New Mexico and Southwest Colorado, working through college, and entering the U.S. Navy. The book and its youth version are scheduled to be released on Oct. 8.
“That foundation is where I launched from,” she said. “Your foundation really matters.”
For Shults, that foundation included growing up in the Church of Nazarene, then teaching kindergarten Sunday school classes and volunteering with youth groups throughout the rest of her life with her husband, Dean.
Her life and amazing tale of heroism that day is chronicled in her new book. There are two versions of Nerves of Steel, one geared for adults, the other for young readers from ages 8 to 14.
“My heart is just in that zone,” Shults said of the young reader version, noting that most of her teaching in children’s ministry has been either in the kindergarten or middle school age groups. As a child, she grew up on ranches with no television and often no telephones, so she became an avid reader. “Reading opens doors that can’t be opened any other way,” she added.
Shults attributes her success in landing that flight to three things: habits, hope and heroes.
“A habit is such a generous gift,” she said. “You can choose your habits.”
After the explosion on Flight 1380, she said her military training kicked in. She and her first officer, Darren Ellisor, put on their oxygen masks and struggled to get control of the aircraft.
She decided to make an announcement to the passengers that they would be landing in Philadephia, and they were working to keep the aircraft stabilized.
Other habits she had learned over the years involved hard work, daily Bible readings, keeping a journal, and daily prayer.
After making the announcement on the plane that they were heading for Philadelphia, she said every crew member focused on the task of landing safely.
“That element of hope – it changed us,” she remembered. “Hope is a big deal.” After that, the flight attendants got out of their seats and went to check on the other passengers.
The catastrophic engine failure in the Boeing 737 caused an explosion that punctured hydraulic lines and severed fuel lines, tearing away sections of the plane, puncturing a window, and which ultimately took a woman’s life, in spite of the attempts of other passengers to save her. But Shults and Ellisor were able to land the plane. Her messages to the Philadephia flight controllers sound amazingly calm. They were able to land the craft, saving 148 people on board.
While Shults acknowledges that she and the other crew members acted heroically, she teaches her students that everyday heroes can perform small acts of heroism. Many people think heroism is only for superheroes flying through the air, but Shults says heroes also are people who show kindness to others, and it can be an act as simple as holding a door for another person.
“That can be a heroic act,” she said. “That is witnessing our faith.”
Over the years, she said she also has learned she has to make her own faith a priority, or she won’t be a good leader.
“We have to be well-fed…to be a good conduit,” she said, adding that kids can tell if you’re faking it.
She works to teach children that God made us all, and that life is an adventure, but it’s not always easy. There are challenges for all of us to overcome, she explained. Her younger sister, Sandra, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a child and was bullied for being different from the other children in school. One day on a schoolbus, Shults hit one of the bullies as hard as she could and told him to never bother her sister again. He didn’t.
Shults had to face her own struggles as she tried to become an armed forces aviator in the early 1980s. Both the Air Force and Army recruiters told her they weren’t accepting women. Her first attempt to enter the Navy didn’t go smoothly, either. Different recruiters gave her different excuses to keep her out of flight school.
Feeling dejected, she went home to live with her parents, began substitute teaching, worked for an oilfield company, and started pursuing her teaching degree.
Finally, one last visit to another Navy recruiter – not the ones who had turned her down previously – got her into Aviation Officer Candidate School at Naval Air Station Pensacola. Her big brother, Clint, bought her four new tires for the drive from New Mexico to Florida to make sure she got there safely. Her mother joined her for the journey, and she reported to school on a Sunday in March of 1985.
“Our class was composed of about seventy-five candidates, but only three of us were women—Blewey, McCopin, and me—the highest number of women in an AOCS class to date. To commemorate the occasion, Class 1-6-8-5 became known as the Class of Girls. When the three of us learned this, we were pretty sure our seventy-two male classmates would not be pleased.”
Shults said officer school was tough, but she could see the reasoning behind it. Individuals had to be broken down, then rebuilt together as a team. As anyone who has attended boot camp knows, that is not a loving, gentle process.
“I’d been tested and tried and come out stronger, both physically and mentally,” she wrote.
On that fateful April day in 2018, she was called to service once again. She wasn’t originally scheduled for that flight, but had switched shifts with her husband, also a Navy veteran and Southwest pilot, so she could watch their son’s high school track meet.
In spite of what many people would call a harrowing experience, Shults said she never considered leaving her job as a pilot. After taking a little more than three weeks off, she was back in the cockpit, and all of the flight crew is back at work, as well. She and Ellisor and their families met with President Donald Trump at the White House so he could congratulate them. Since then, she has been inducted into the 2018 Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, where another female veteran noted that Shults “serves her family, her community and her country on a daily basis with kindness, empathy and humility in her heart.”