It was one 10-minute snippet in time that made Tammie Jo Shults famous. A Southwest Airlines captain, Shults and her co-pilot Darren Ellisor were celebrated for successfully landing their Boeing 737 after a catastrophic, uncontained engine failure at altitude caused an explosive decompression that greatly compromised the aircraft’s flying characteristics. She was hailed for her calm, decisive leadership and skill in handling an emergency that’s outside the normal engine-out training scenarios.
While that event created her public persona, it is far from defining the person. Everything that she learned as a kid growing up on a rural New Mexico ranch, the hard lessons she learned as a Navy career pilot flying F/A-18’s and the central role that faith plays in her life shaped the person who showed up on April 17, 2018.
Last summer at AirVenture Oshkosh, I sat down with Tammie Jo to talk about her love of aviation, her career, and of course, that fateful day. She recently published a book called “Nerves of Steel” that is less about being the hero to 148 Southwest passengers, but all the challenges, victories, setbacks, people who doubted her as well as people who championed her that forged the steel within. Her story is inspiring, whether you’re a young person looking up the mountain yearning for the summit, or among those who’ve crested the pinnacle and are now enjoying the view.
Tammie Jo grew up on a working ranch that happened to be near Holloman Air Force base, giving her a front-row view of the fighters training over her house. But it wasn’t until she read Russell Hitt’s book “Jungle Pilot” about Nate Saint, a missionary pilot in Ecuador, did she think about becoming a pilot herself. While finishing her biology and agribusiness degrees at Mid-America Nazarene College, she met a woman who was awarded a pilot slot with the U.S. Air Force. Inspired, she applied, but was turned down. She then decided to try the Navy and was accepted for aviation officer candidate school. That set the course for her military career, which
culminated with Tammie Jo becoming one of the first female Navy aviators to qualify in the F/A-18 Hornet. Because of the combat exclusion policy in place at the time, she instructed as well as flew training missions as the aggressor pilot. In 1995, she was promoted to Lieutenant Commander and transitioned to the Navy Reserves, where she flew the F/A-18 and EA-6B Prowler until 2001. She married fellow Navy aviator Dean Shults, and she launched her career at Southwest Airlines.
On the morning of April 17, 2018, Tammie Jo was captain for a Southwest flight from New York to Dallas. Ironically, she was not scheduled to fly that day, instead replacing her husband Dean for this leg. When a left engine fan blade separated during cruise flight, it exploded the inner containment shield, peeled back the engine cowl and pierced the left side of the fuselage. The violent depressurization partially pulled a belted passenger out of a failed window, resulting in her tragic death.
As every news outlet reported that day, Tammie Jo Shults was able to successfully execute an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport. What wasn’t widely reported was how badly crippled the aircraft was, and how she and co-pilot Ellisor struggled to regain control due to the tremendous airframe damage. Uncontained engine failures aren’t something that is covered during training.
“The failure was sudden and very violent. The airplane snapped left and we were able to stop it passing 40 degrees. There was this tremendous shudder, so bad that we couldn’t read anything,” she recalled. “It wasn’t just a sudden loss of thrust on one side, it was basically a barn door in a hurricane from the engine cowling that was peeled back and remained attached. Since we were at high altitude, the airplane was squirrely with the tremendous amount of yaw that was induced.”
Tammie Jo also said they also were dealing with smoke in the cockpit, severed hydraulic and fuel lines, not to mention the explosive decompression caused by the fuselage breach. It wasn’t until they were passing through 8,000 feet did they learn about the passenger, with flight crew pleading for them to slow down so they could pull her back inside the cabin.
“As we got down lower, we were more of a glider than we knew. But when we added power, it was pushing us severely left to the point where I had less and less rudder authority. So, we had to pull our power back further. I didn’t want to change the wing too much because of the damage, so I opted for flaps 5, which is minimal drag and optimal lift,” Tammie Jo said. She added that they were still 10,000 pounds overweight and didn’t have time to pull out the single-engine before landing checklist but knew instinctually the tasks that needed to be done.
“Some advice I’d give to fellow pilots would be when you are practicing emergency procedures, take the time to think about why that switch is being switched. Why is it on the memory items? What’s the reason behind it?” she said. “Also, dedicate yourself to regularly practice those emergency procedures on the ground, in the sim or in the air. Habits on good days become instinct on bad days. Instincts take no time and gives you bandwidth to move on to something else that requires a little more creativity to solve.”
She credits her time in the Navy for giving her the calm demeanor that was captured with her radio calls. “At first we were trying to figure out if the plane was holding together. Then I realized, hey, we’re still flying so that’s a good thing,” she said. “It was a calm heart that produced a calm voice. You stop worrying about the ‘what if,’ and focus on the ‘what is’ and deal with it.”
In addition to her military background and training, she credits something not found on any checklist. “We act on what we believe. I did believe that if this was my final hour, I’d make it my best and just pay attention to what I had to do.”
Why was she compelled to write a book? She answered that it was a book that inspired her to start our aviation journey and she hopes that her story, which began decades before Flight 1380, will inspire others.
“Dreams are wonderful, but they’re only the starting pistol. It’s the race ahead, the work that you put in, sometimes years of work and with no promise of success, that puts you in place prepared and ready.”
Tammie Jo Shults’ new book “Nerves of Steel: How I Followed My Dreams, Earned My Wings, and Faced My Greatest Challenge” is now widely available from Harper Collins. She has also released an adaptation to the book for young readers ages 8 to 12.