Exclusive Interview With Tammie Jo Shults Author of Nerves of Steel

Nerves of Steel is the captivating true story of Tammie Jo Shults’s remarkable life—from growing up the daughter of a humble rancher, to breaking through gender barriers as one of the Navy’s first female F/A-18 Hornet pilots, to safely landing the severely crippled Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 and helping save the lives of 148 people.

Tammie Jo Shults has spent her entire life loving the skies. Though the odds were against her, she became one of the few female fighter pilots in the Navy. In 1994, after serving her country honorably for eight years, Tammie Jo left the Navy and joined Southwest Airlines in the early 1990’s.

On April 17, 2018, Tammie Jo was called to service once again. Twenty minutes into a routine domestic flight, Captain Shults was faced with the unthinkable—a 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 taking a woman’s life. Captain Shults and her first officer, Darren Ellisor, struggled to stabilize the aircraft.

Drawing deeply from her well of experience, Tammie Jo was able to wrestle the severely damaged 737 safely to the ground. Not originally scheduled for that flight, there is no doubt God had prepared her and placed her right where she needed to be that day.

What inspired you to follow your dreams, even as a young woman? 

Well, seeing the “dogfighting” over our big hay barn inspired me; however, it was reading about it that gave weight to that dream. Reading about it was the turning point for me.

I think that everything that flies launches from a foundation, whether it’s rockets from a launchpad, aircraft from a runway, or even birds from a branch. I also needed a foundation to launch from, and having men in my life, specifically my dad and brothers and, for the last 32 years, my husband, that treated me as an equal was foundational. Choosing a faith that has no second-class citizens was equally important. That gave me a foundation—a launchpad—to launch from.

I started plotting a course from where I stood—a very humble cattle and hog ranch—to flying military jets. There were a few gaps in my plan, but I had enough facts to hop across the creek, so to speak, to get to the other side.

Keep in mind this wasn’t my first or only dream or idea; it was the one I was most suited for. I felt like I was fairly physically fit, had good hand-eye coordination and a love of science and math. Originally though, I wanted to be a songwriter. My siblings tried very hard to find nice things to say about my songs, so I realized I needed to move on. Next I had the wish to be a race horse jockey, but I just kept growing until my mom was kind enough to tell me the truth: “You’re too tall. Move on to something you’re suited for.” That honesty saved me a lot of time and energy in life.

What was it like to become one of the Navy’s first female fighter pilots? 

Being one of the few ladies to fly fighters was a lot like breaking the sound barrier—unremarkable, unless you’re on the outside looking on and can hear the boom. Inside the cockpit, you’re busy with flying your mission, and a glance at the airspeed indicator is the only way you’ll know that you beat the speed of sound. There are no lights, bells, or whistles to mark Mach One. Inside the ranks of aviation, I was busy trying to learn the same thing my male peers were learning while trying to tip-toe through the minefield of possible egos and do my best not to draw attention to myself.

I had an abbreviated syllabus, which meant I needed to learn in about seven flights what my male peers learned in twelve. We all had the same standards required of us to pass our check flights. My study time to flight time ratio was considerable. I teasingly give Dean, my husband, the credit for homeschooling me in F18s. He transitioned from A7s to F18s a year before I did. He could see the difference in his training versus mine. We would talk through air-to-air intercepts, formation pointers, or systems throughout dinner, dishes, and beyond if needed.

I was the first to fly F18s on the west coast, but I was not alone. My good friend Pam Lyons (now Carel) was in my class as well and went on to be the first woman to fly the Hornet in a combat squadron. Sue Hart Lilly and Brenda Scheufele joined us the next year, Brenda joining Pam in flying the Hornet in combat.

Linda Heid and Kara Hultgreen, who flew A-6s, went on to two different squadrons. Linda stayed with the A-6, and Kara Hultgreen became one of the first women (if not the first) to fly the F14 Tomcat in a combat squadron. Lori Melling flew the Hornet in Pax River as a Navy test pilot that same year.

There was no fanfare, no announcements, and we all appreciated it at the time. We simply wanted to have the same opportunities, standards, and respect as our male peers. There had been a few female pilots in the years prior flying the A-4 as fighter pilots in one or two aggressor squadrons. I was simply one of the first to fly the F-18.

In many ways, the Navy was amazingly ahead of the times in opening the door to women flying tactical aircraft. The door was often opened in unconventional ways, like the jet program designed for Pat Tinkler, the first woman to catch a wire on a carrier. She was sent directly from primary training in an airplane to a partial advanced jet training syllabus in an A-4 Skyhawk, skipping the entire intermediate jet training in T-2s before being sent to the carrier to qualify.

You would probably have to be a carrier-qualified pilot to understand the gravitas in that decision. It was not made with success in mind. None of her male peers had such an abbreviated syllabus before going to see the carrier for their first trap. Later an admiral found out about this special syllabus and was shocked. He declared there would be no more future shortcuts, at least in the training command, before earning your wings.

I owe a lot to the ladies who went before me. If they hadn’t succeeded, I don’t know that the door would have been opened to me.

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