After landing troubled Southwest plane, pilot Tammie Jo Shults hugged passengers, texted ‘God is good’

Just hours after she guided Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 to safety, Captain Tammie Jo Shults shared three short words about landing with a lone engine, a shattered window and a cabin full of frightened passengers wearing oxygen masks.

“God is good,” she texted to a fellow pilot and friend.

The 56-year-old Texan and former Navy fighter pilot was at the controls Tuesday when the plane heading from New York's LaGuardia Airport to Dallas Love Field suffered a midflight engine failure that shot debris into the fuselage and through a window in the cabin. In about six minutes, the plane dropped more than 20,000 feet in altitude.

Witnesses recounted panicked passengers trying to send messages to loved ones and some holding on to a woman sitting next to the broken window who was sucked partway out of the Boeing 737.

By the time the plane landed in Philadelphia, one woman was fatally injured and seven people had minor injuries. The other 136 on board were able to walk away unhurt from what could have been a larger tragedy.  And many of those on board credit Shults’ steadiness for getting them through.

Shults and her first officer, Darren Ellisor, made their first public comments about the incident late Wednesday.

In a written statement, the pilots and the flight's other three crew members said they "feel we were simply doing our jobs."

"Our hearts are heavy," the statement said. "On behalf of the entire Crew, we appreciate the outpouring of support from the public and our co-workers as we all reflect on one family's profound loss."

Shults and Ellisor have declined media requests for interviews, saying they are focused on the investigation.

After the landing, Shults walked up and down the aisle hugging passengers, said Benjamin Goldstein, a New York resident headed to Dallas for a conference.

“I specifically said to her, ‘Do I get a hug too?’” he recounted on Wednesday. “She said, ‘Of course. I wouldn't let you by without a hug.’

“It was very touching. Here at the most crucial moment, she had the presence of mind and the courage to act with excellence as it was required. It's a beautiful quality, and we have our lives to thank for it."

As the pilot spoke to air traffic control before landing, she had a clear and unwavering voice, giving vital information without wasting words. Passengers were injured. No, the plane wasn’t on fire. Yes, there was a hole in the plane.

Friends, neighbors and former classmates said they recognized Shults' sense of calm and inner confidence.

“That’s Tammie, that’s Tammie, that’s her,” said longtime friend Robert Bruce. “She’s not the type to panic.”

Gentle spirit

Bruce owns and operates the airfield in Boerne, the bucolic town about 30 miles northwest of San Antonio where Tammie Jo and her husband, Dean, live.

Bruce said the Shultses are regulars at the airfield, where they keep a plane and where their son trained for his pilot’s certification. Bruce’s wife, Nancy, works with the Shultses as a pilot at Southwest Airlines. The couples spend time together, both on the ground and in the air.

It seems that nearly everyone in Boerne has a Tammie Jo story, and taken together, they paint a picture of a woman almost too impossibly caring, too impossibly devoted to her community. But, they say, that’s why she was a role model long before she landed that damaged jetliner.

Longtime friend and fellow church member Staci Thompson said a deep Christian faith has guided the way Shults lives.

Shults has taught nearly every grade level of Sunday school at their church. She’s volunteered at a school for at-risk kids and turned a cottage on her family’s property into a temporary home for victims of Hurricane Rita and widows.

“She would tell you everything she has she’s been given from God, so she wants to share it,” Thompson said.

Thompson first met Tammie Jo and Dean Shults about 20 years ago when they attended church together in Bandera, in the Hill Country. Thompson said she was struck by the kindness of the couple, who were in the process of adopting a child. The Shultses adopted their daughter, Sydney, and soon after, Tammie Jo became pregnant with her son.

Thompson was also impressed by Tammie Jo’s beautiful voice.

“I always teased her that if I ever got married, she would be the one singing at my wedding,” Thompson said.

For about five years, Thompson was a nanny to their kids when Tammie Jo and Dean Shults were away flying. She now works as an administrative assistant for adults, youth and children at First Baptist Church in Boerne, the church that the Shults family attends. The two women still get together to watch Hallmark films and Jane Austen movies.

Thompson said even animals pick up on Shults’ “very soft spirit.”

Shults has a dog, miniature horses and a giant tortoise named Gobi. She's taken in chickens, quail and goats. Once, she rescued a fawn after the mother deer was killed by a car. The fawn, Lexie, lived in the house when she was small. Even when she grew older and lived outside, Tammie Jo would dress her up with seasonal handkerchiefs.

“She’s very sweet, and animals can sense it,” Thompson said. “They have no fear of her.”

Strength and determination

But, friends say, a fierce determination and laser focus accompany that sweetness.

Years before she landed the emergency Southwest Airlines flight, Shults stood out for another bold decision: enlisting as a pilot in the Navy. When she joined the Navy, women were prohibited from flying in combat. The Navy says she was one of its first female pilots to transition to tactical aircraft.

As a child, Shults had watched Air Force planes fly over her family’s New Mexico ranch, according to the book Military Fly Moms, by Linda Maloney. She read Jungle Pilot, a book about the missionary pilot Nate Saint. She sought out an aviation lecture by a retired colonel during her high school’s vocational day.

“He started the class by asking me, the only girl in attendance, if I was lost,” she recounted in the Maloney book. “I mustered up the courage to assure him I was not and that I was interested in flying. He allowed me to stay but assured me there were no professional women pilots.

“I did not say another word. In my heart, I hoped that God had given me an interest in flying for a reason. I had never touched an airplane, but I knew flying was my future. My junior year in college, I met a girl who had just received her Air Force wings. My heart jumped. Girls did fly! I set to work trying to break into the club.”

The Air Force denied her entry, so she began taking an exam to become a pilot for the Navy, according to Military Fly Moms. About a year later, she found a recruiter who agreed to process her application. Two months later, she buzzed her hair and headed to flight training in Pensacola, Fla.

She was commissioned in the Navy on June 21, 1985.

During her years of service, she met Dean Shults, another Navy pilot, who, she joked in Military Fly Moms, was her “knight in shining airplane.”  The two married and later became pilots for Southwest Airlines in the early 1990s. They have two children, daughter Sydney, 20, and son Marshall, 18.

Her service was later honored at an alumni event for MidAmerica Nazarene University, a Christian university in Kansas where she earned degrees in biology and agribusiness in 1983, according to Carol Best, a university spokeswoman.

A college classmate, Cindy Foster, told The Kansas City Star that Shults faced "a lot of resistance" when she enlisted in the Navy because of her gender. Foster said that Shults "knew she had to work harder than everyone else" and "did it for herself and all women fighting for a chance."

In the 1980s and 1990s, women pilots were especially rare and so they befriended one another, said  Maloney, a former Navy pilot and friend of Shults'.

“You lived your life in a fishbowl, which wasn’t always the most comfortable thing to do,” Maloney said.

Maloney and Shults met at a Navy training event and kept in touch across the miles, though they were based on opposite coasts in Florida and California. Shults later sang at Maloney’s wedding.

“We became fast friends,” Maloney said. “We had a small group of girlfriends who were all aviators. When there’s very few women, you tend to form strong relationships.”

On Tuesday, Maloney heard that her old friend had been the steady hand that safely brought down the Southwest Airlines flight. She sent a message: “News travels fast. Praying for you.”

Shults sent a reply. “Thanks. God is good.”

Women are still vastly outnumbered in the aviation industry, representing about 7 percent of the total pilot population of roughly 617,000, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Maloney, who is founder and CEO of a speakers bureau that showcases women veterans, said she hopes Shults’ heroic act inspires young people, especially young women, to consider aviation careers.

Loved and admired

Lisa Nilsson, who met Shults through their children’s school in Boerne, said she’s long been impressed by Shults’ ability to move effortlessly between a woman’s and man’s world. “She has her nails done and her hair done and is beautiful, and yet she’s completely comfortable sitting in the pilot’s seat,” she said.

“I admire her deeply and did long before yesterday.”

Nilsson said it’s been surreal and sweet to see her friend hailed as a hero.

She said she's been praying for Shults since the plane landed. She said she sent text messages to her, calling her a "rock star" and wishing her strength during long days of interviews with investigators.

On Wednesday morning, she ran into Tammie Jo's husband, Dean, at the gas station and gave him a hug. Despite all that had happened, he still managed to crack a joke.

"I told him how great his wife is, and he joked he married very well."

Sandy Green, who has lived in Boerne for about 20 years with her family, said Tammie Jo and Dean Shults have been her neighbors for several years.

When Green's son told her Tuesday that he'd read on the internet that their neighbor had been Flight 1380's pilot, she wasn't surprised by her bravery.

"Heck no, she's a strong Christian lady," she said. "She's a very confident person. She was doing her job. ... I'm so happy she was able to land safely, for all those people. So proud she was able to do her job."

Assistant business editor Arnessa Garrett and staff writer Sabriya Rice contributed to this story.