Everything was routine, until Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 hit 32,000 feet in the sky. Then confusion set in. A deafening boom pierced the cabin and ominous black smoke billowed into the cockpit, temporarily blinding the pilots. The Boeing 737 craft jerked to the left. Oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling, and passenger ears painfully popped. It smelled of burnt rubber—and blood.
Just 22 minutes after takeoff from New York City on April 17, 2018, the plane’s left engine exploded and cracked a window, causing 43-year-old passenger Jennifer Riordan to be sucked halfway out. The mother of two later died, and a trust was established in her honor to help families meet financial needs after traumatic events.
Capt. Tammie Jo Shults and Darren Ellisor, the flight’s first officer, navigated the damaged plane to safety, saving the other 148 people aboard. Released audio from the cockpit reveals how Shults calmly relayed the chaotic situation to dispatchers until they made an emergency landing in Philadelphia.
Ahead of the release of her new book “Nerves of Steel: How I Followed My Dreams, Earned My Wings, and Faced My Greatest Challenge” (out Oct. 8), Shults sat down with ELLE.com to talk about the fatal flight.
You weren’t supposed to fly that day, right?
I wanted to attend my son’s track meet, so I’d traded shifts with my husband Dean, who is also a pilot, so I could go. I’m never trading shifts with him again!
What went through your head when the explosion happened?
I really thought we’d been hit by another aircraft. The hit was so hard, and the jolt was so violent. We heard the explosion. We could see the engine instruments blinking and winding down. Then there was this shudder. We couldn’t focus our eyes on anything, and smoke spilled into the cockpit. The roar was so loud we couldn’t hear our own voices. Darren and I were yelling to each other, but we used hand motions because it was so loud.
How did you remain so impressively calm throughout the ordeal?
I had this burst of adrenaline that made me think so fast and remain so calm. I was thinking to myself, “I don’t think everything is going to stay on this aircraft for us to land, but I’ll do everything in my power to make sure we land safely.” After we landed, I put away my oxygen mask, collected my stuff, made sure I got my headset, and shook hands with the passengers as they exited. Then I texted [my husband] Dean a picture of the busted engine and said, “I flew this.”
You called Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who landed a plane on Manhattan’s Hudson River in 2009, the next day. What was that conversation like?
Sully faced the same media onslaught we did when he landed his flight. We had reporters coming to our house and calling us nonstop, so I asked Sully, “What did you wish you knew that you figured out later?” Then we just talked about our experiences and what I could expect in the future in terms of media.
Sully has said in interviews that he suffered from PTSD, and had trouble sleeping for months. Did you experience similar symptoms?
No. For me, in that moment on the plane, I mentally rushed to that cliff of “what if,” like, what if this is the day I meet my maker? But I think the Lord gave me a calm air and I backed away from that cliff. Everybody processes things differently.
Pulitzer Prize winner Beverly Weintraub pointed out in a Washington Post feature that some media outlets referred to you as a “female pilot,” whereas Sully was just a “pilot” when he made headlines.
I recently gave a talk and a woman came up to me and said, “Well, you’re no Sully, but I’m excited to hear you speak.” It’s one example of a thousand sexist things said to me in 35 years of flying. After my talk, she came up to me and said, “Actually Sully is no you.” It’s all about perspective and how much information you have. Other people have said, “The only reason people are making a big deal about this is because you’re a woman. You weren’t even successful, because somebody died on the plane.” I landed the plane safely though and I don’t need to address it further. I did it. People can take the facts and work it out for themselves. Let them connect the dots.
You were described as an “angel” by one of your passengers and hailed a “hero” by the media. Do you feel like one?
It’s difficult, because when you lose a passenger, it has a completely different posture than when you don’t. I was grateful that we made a successful landing and I was in a position to know, more than anyone, that that wasn’t a guaranteed fact when everything happened, even until we touched down. When there’s a loss of life, it isn’t eclipsed by all the good that happens. Plus, there were so many heroes that day. I had flight attendants and passengers disregarding their own safety to help people. No one had any idea if we were going to make it but everyone was assisting each other with oxygen masks and seat buckles. A retired nurse, Peggy, got up and did CPR on a passenger, and then that passenger got down on their knees and tied the shoes of a stranger just because their arms were full. Heroes come in all forms.
Who was your hero growing up?
You’re going to probably laugh, but Tarzan. He was always saving somebody.
How long before you went back to work as a pilot?
They gave us as much time as we wanted, but sometimes you need a slice of normal in life. Three weeks later I got back in the cockpit and flew down to Puerto Vallarta and back. It was great.
The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the explosion. When you think back on that day, would you have done anything differently?
In terms of our response to the emergency, not a thing. The only regret I have is that when they brought Jennifer forward, instead of sitting back to let the medical team just do what they do, I wish I could have helped cover her a little better. I prayed there was still life in her, and I remember thinking, “She has got to be freezing.” It bothered me that I didn’t go get my sweater to put on her. It’s small, but stepping in and extending a hand to help always makes a big difference.