As one of the first female fighter pilots in the U.S. military, Tammie Jo Shults is no stranger to displaying 'nerves of steel."
Cool, calm and deliberate, Shults brought her twin-engine Boeing 737 in for an emergency landing after the Southwest jet apparently blew an engine on a flight Tuesday from New York's LaGuardia airport to Dallas.
Then she walked the aisles to check on each passenger personally, according to WPVI-TV.
“The pilot Tammy Jo was so amazing! She landed us safely in Philly,” said Amanda Bourman, a passenger, on Instagram.
Another passenger, Diana McBride Self, writing on Facebook, called Shults a "true American Hero."
Passengers on a Southwest flight describe the harrowing moments after an engine exploded, forcing the pilot to make an emergency landing. One man onboard tried to save the woman who died when she was almost sucked out of a plane window. USA TODAY
In the harrowing ordeal at 32,000 feet, one woman, Jennifer Riordan, of Albuquerque, died after being partially sucked out of a shattered window. Seven others among the 144 passengers were injured.
Passengers who had prayed, held hands and sucked on oxygen masks as the plane made a sharp descent, praised Shults for her calm demeanor.
"She has nerves of steel," said passenger Alfred Tumlinson, of Corpus Christi, Texas. "That lady, I applaud her. 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."
"The lady, the crew, everything, everybody was immaculate," he said. "They were so professional in what they did to get us on the ground."
That coolness was particularly notable in air traffic control recordings in which a female pilot is heard slowly and calmly reporting the in-air emergency, noting that they have "part of the aircraft missing."
The National Transportation Safety board said a preliminary investigations indicates an engine blade broke off because of "metal fatigue."
Shults: "Could you have the medical meet us there on the runway as well? We've got injured passengers."
Air traffic control: "Injured passengers, OK. And is your airplane physically on fire?"
Shults: "No, it's not on fire. But part of it is missing. They said there's a hole and that someone went out."
Air traffic control: "Um, I'm sorry. You said there was a hole and somebody went out? Southwest 1380 it doesn't matter we will work it out there."
All the while, Shults and the crew were bringing the plane on a steep descent to an emergency landing in Philadelphia.
Her mother-in-law, Virginia Shults, told The Washington Postthat as soon as she heard the pilot’s voice on the radio transmission online, she said “that is Tammie Jo.”
“It was just as if she and I were sitting here talking,” Virginia Shults said. “She’s a very calming person.”
Late Wednesday night, the flight captain, Tammie Jo Shults, and her first officer, Darren Ellisor, released a statement saying they were "simply doing our jobs."
"Our hearts are heavy. On behalf of the entire crew, we appreciate the outpouring of support from the public and our coworkers as we all reflect on one family's profound loss," the statement said. "We joined our company today in focused work and interviews with investigators. We are not conducting media interviews."
The New Mexico native fell in love with flying while growing up on a ranch near Holloman Air Force Base, in New Mexico. In 1983, she graduated from MidAmerica Nazarene, in Olathe, Kan., with degrees in biology and agribusiness, Carol Best, a university spokeswoman told The Kansas City Star.
She is married to a fellow Southwest pilot, Dean Shults, whom she met in the Navy. Shults' brother-in-law, Gary Shults, said her husband confirmed Tammie Jo made the emergency landing.
"She's a formidable woman, as sharp as a tack," Gary Shults told the Associated Press. "My brother says she's the best pilot he knows. She's a very caring, giving person who takes care of lots of people."
According to Reuters, she is quoted on the fighter plane blog F-16.net as saying she tried to attend an aviation career day at high school but was told they did not accept girls. After college, she was turned down by the Air Force but accepted by the U.S. Navy for its aviation officer candidate school.
Cindy Foster, a classmate at MidAmerica Nazarene, told The Kansas City Star that even in the Navy Shults was met with "a lot of resistance" because of her gender.
"She knew she had to work harder than everyone else," Foster said. "She did it for herself and all women fighting for a chance. ... I'm extremely proud of her. She saved a lot of lives today."
Although barred by regulations from flying in a combat squadron, she was was one of the first female F/A-18 Hornet pilots and flew in a support role. She reached the rank of Navy lieutenant commander and became an instructor before leaving the Navy in 1993 to join Southwest, according to the F-16 blog.
A devout Christian, Shults, according to the F-16 blog, said that sitting in the captain’s seat gave her “the opportunity to witness for Christ on almost every flight.”
Southwest Airlines declined to name the crew of flight 1380 and Shults, who has two children, was not immediately available for comment.