New York (AFP) – Captain Tammie Jo Shults, one of the first women fighter pilots in the US Navy, was hailed as an American hero Wednesday for calmly landing a stricken passenger jet after a midair engine explosion that killed a mother-of-two.
Shults was identified as the pilot by passengers on Southwest Airlines Flight 1380, which was en route from New York to Dallas when its left engine suddenly blew apart, shrapnel shattering a window and partially sucking one woman out of the plane.
An audio recording revealed a calm, unflappable Shults requesting medical assistance and telling air traffic control part of the aircraft was missing as she guided the jet and the 149 people on board into an emergency landing.
“This is a true American Hero,” wrote passenger Diana McBride Self on Facebook, posting a picture of Shults in the aisle of the Boeing 737-700, greeting passengers as they filed out of the plane in Philadelphia on Tuesday.
“A huge thank you for her knowledge, guidance and bravery in a traumatic situation. God bless her and all the crew,” she added.
“The pilot, Tammy (sic) Jo was so amazing!” wrote passenger Amanda Bourman on Instagram next to a picture of the ruptured engine on the tarmac.
“She landed us safely in Philly. God sent his angels to watch over us. I actually heard someone say, there is a God!!”
Southwest Airlines, which said it was “devastated” by what happened, declined Wednesday to release any information about the crew.
Shults’ expert handling of the incident drew comparisons on social media to the legendary “Miracle of the Hudson” pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who heroically landed a disabled US Airways airline in the Hudson River in January 2009 after a bird strike.
“Sully” became a national hero for his perfect splash landing in the river alongside Manhattan and successful evacuation of everyone on board. Hollywood star Tom Hanks took on the eponymous title role in the 2016 Oscar-nominated movie “Sully.”
– Fighter pilot –
“Could you have the medical meet us there on the runway?” Shults’ calm voice can be heard asking air traffic control, in an audio recording of their exchange. “We’ve got injured passengers.”
“Is your airplane physically on fire?” asks air traffic control.
“No, it’s not on fire but part of it’s missing. They said there is a hole and someone went out,” she replies.
Witnesses spoke of how a female passenger was sucked toward the window, before being pulled back by fellow passengers as the plane plummeted.
“The window had broken and the suction, negative pressure had pulled her outside the plane partially. These two wonderful men they managed to get her back inside the plane and we lay her down and we started CPR,” Peggy Phillips told ABC News.
The woman, who later died, has been named as Jennifer Riordan, a 43-year-old executive for Wells Fargo bank and mother-of-two from Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Seven other people were slightly injured.
Shults graduated from MidAmerica Nazarene University in 1983, and her alma mater says she became one of the first female fighter pilots for the US Navy.
According to an online military aviation forum, she was one of the first women to fly F-18s, landing her fighter plane on boats at 150 miles (240 kilometers) per hour before eventually becoming an instructor. She later joined Southwest Airlines.
A committed Christian, who reportedly teaches Sunday school, her husband Dean is a fellow Southwest pilot and the couple live in the San Antonio area of Texas. They have two children.
At the airport, Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said passengers and flight crew “did some pretty amazing things under very difficult circumstances.”