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Hero Southwest Airlines Pilot Was Navy Aviation Pioneer With "Nerves Of Steel"

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Captain Tammie Jo Shults, the hero pilot who safely piloted Southwest Airlines flight 1380 to safety after its engine exploded on Tuesday, sending shrapnel crashing through a window and ultimately causing the death of one passenger, wasn't your average pilot.

Thankfully for the passengers aboard that faithful flight, Shults was an experienced Navy fighter pilot who learned to fly as one of the first female pilots in the service roughly 30 years ago.

She piloted the F/A-18 Hornet in an era when women were barred from combat missions and received accolades during her time in the service, per the New York Time.

When the left engine of her Boeing 737 exploded just before reaching cruising altitude, her co-pilot and other members of the crew attested that Shults didn't bat an eye.

Shults

Instead, she remained calm as she steadied the aircraft and radioed to air traffic controllers, without a hint of alarm in her voice, that her aircraft was experiencing and engine fire, and that she was descending. Again, as they drew closer and flight attendants fought to save the life of Jennifer Riordan - ultimately a losing battle - she got on her radio and asked air traffic control to have medical meet them on the runway.

Later, Passengers would praise Shults's poise and "nerves of steel" in the face of what appeared to be imminent doom.

"Can you have the medical meet us there on the runway," Captain Shults calmly told air traffic controllers in Philadelphia. "They said there’s a hole and, uh, someone went out."

At 11:20 am, 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."

Another passenger, Alfred Tumlinson, was more direct in his praise. "She has nerves of steel," Mr. Tumlinson told The Associated Press. "I’m going to send her a Christmas card — I’m going to tell you that — with a gift certificate for getting me on the ground. She was awesome."

Shults's career in aviation can only be described as pioneering. While there are few female pilots in commercial and military aviation today, 30 years ago, there were even fewer.

She faced rejection from the Air Force - she enrolled in Navy flight school instead - after graduating from MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kan. with a bachelor's degree in biology and agribusiness.

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.

After leaving the military, she and her husband, pilot Dean M Shults, became pilots for Southwest Airlines.

In a brief interview with the New York Times, her husband declared that the "media has it right - she's a hero."

Meanwhile, her story has inspired fellow female fighter pilots who started to message one another about Captain Shults.

One of Shults's friends from the military told Fox News that she had texted Shults after hearing about the landing. Shults offered only a simple reply: "God is good."

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