Hero Pilot Who Landed Deadly Southwest Flight Was One of Navy's First Female Fighter Pilots
During her communication with air traffic control, Pilot Shults said: "There's a hole and someone went out."
The Southwest Airlines pilot who successfully landed the severely damaged plane heading from New York City to Dallas on Tuesday has been called a hero for staying calm throughout the horrifying ordeal.
Tammie Jo Shults, a former fighter pilot with the U.S. Navy, was flying the plane that had 149 people onboard, according to The Washington Post, when one of the engines exploded about 20 minutes into the flight.
“Southwest 1380, we’re single engine,” Shults calmly told air traffic control during the flight. “We have part of the aircraft missing so we’re going to need to slow down a bit.”
A representative for Southwest Airlines declined PEOPLE’s request for comment from Shults and the flight crew, adding: “We couldn’t be more proud of their actions.”
The plane made an emergency landing in Philadelphia, and one passenger, Jennifer Riordan, a New Mexico bank executive and mother of two, was later pronounced dead. Riordan was sitting next to the window that was hit by shrapnel after the plane’s engine exploded, the Associated Press reported.
It is understood that Riordan was critically injured as she was sucked out the window. While other passengers were able to pull her back into the aircraft, witnesses reported that she was in cardiac arrest while passengers attempted to revive her over the course of 20 minutes.
During her communication with air traffic control, Shults said: “There’s a hole and someone went out.”
In August 2016, another Southwest Airlines flight experienced engine failure mid-flight. Shrapnel from the engine left a hole above the wing, and the oxygen masks dropped. The plane, which was en route from New Orleans to Orlando, landed safely in Pensacola, Florida, and there were no reported injuries.
One passenger, Alfred Tumlinson, of Corpus Christi, Texas, told the Associated Press that he’s in awe of how Shults handled the stressful situation.
“She has nerves of steel. 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,” he said. “The lady, the crew, everything, everybody was immaculate. They were so professional in what they did to get us on the ground.”
Shults’ husband is also a Southwest pilot, her brother-in-law, Gary Shults, told the news outlet. “She’s a formidable woman, as sharp as a tack,” he said. “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 her alma mater, MidAmerica Nazarene University, Shults was among one of the first female fighter pilots for the U.S. Navy.
Passenger Amanda Bourman, a mother of three who was onboard the flight with her husband, told PEOPLE: “I just had a really sick feeling in my stomach, my stomach was all in knots—you right away think that you’re not going to survive when an engine goes out.
“The plane started going back and forth as the pilot was trying to gain control of the plane again. I put my mask on and my husband and I right away grabbed on to each other and started praying.”
“We asked God to be with the pilot to land us safely,” she added, “and to send angels to watch over us.”
Another passenger, Kristopher Johnson, of El Paso, Texas, told PEOPLE: “I’m a nervous flier. At the initial impact of the explosion, that’s definitely the first thing that crossed my mind: I wanted to see my son again. I definitely want to see him grow up so I remained calm and I got my [oxygen] mask on and trusted God and trusted the pilots to do their job.”