Leadership

Southwest Airlines pilot who saved 149 people with emergency landing was one of the first women to fly fighter jets

Tammie Jo Shults in a photo from the 1990s.
Courtesy Linda Maloney
Tammie Jo Shults in a photo from the 1990s.

Southwest Airlines pilot Tammie Jo Shults is being praised for her quick thinking and calmness under pressure during an emergency landing that saved 149 passengers at Philadelphia International Airport on Tuesday.

"This is a true American Hero," passenger Diana McBride Self wrote on Facebook. "A huge thank you for her knowledge, guidance and bravery in a traumatic situation."

Alfred Tumlinson, another passenger, told the Associated Press, "She has nerves of steel. That lady, I applaud her."

However, this isn't the first time the pilot has made history in her career. Shults, 56, was among the first female fighter pilots in the U.S. Navy.

Cindy Foster — a classmate at MidAmerica Nazarene University, where Shults studied biology and agribusiness — tells the Kansas City Star that Shults was the first woman to fly an F/A-18 Hornet for the Navy.

Navy spokesperson Lt. Christina H. Sears tells CNBC Make It that while she cannot confirm whether Shults was the first woman to fly an F/A-18 Hornet, she confirmed that Shults "was among the first cohort of women pilots to transition to tactical aircraft."

Shults was commissioned in the Navy in 1985 and served as an instructor pilot flying the F/A-18 Hornet and EA-6B Prowler, achieving the rank of lieutenant commander, Sears said.

Although Shults always had a love for flying, she was met with "a lot of resistance" because of her gender, says Foster, who graduated with the pilot in 1983. "So she knew she had to work harder than everyone else."

U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet
Source: U.S. Department of Defense
U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet

In the book "Military Fly Moms" by Linda Maloney, Shults discusses her persistence in the face of gender bias and discrimination, reports The Washington Post.

Shults recalls being the only girl at an aviation lecture in high school when a retired colonel asked her if she was lost. "I mustered up the courage to assure him I was not and that I was interested in flying," she writes. "He allowed me to stay but assured me there were no professional women pilots."

But that didn't hinder Shults from trying to break into the club. When she met a woman in college who had been admitted to the Air Force, Shults made it her mission to do the same. However, the Air Force denied her entrance, according to the book.

Shults was "finally" accepted into the Navy, one year after taking its aviation exam and when she found a recruiter who was willing to process her application. Still, "there did not seem to be a demand for women pilots," she writes.

After serving for 10 years in the Navy, where she met her husband and fellow pilot Dean, Shults joined Southwest Airlines as a pilot.

Although her skilled landing has attracted heavy media attention, her aeronautical expertise comes as no surprise to her family and friends, including her brother-in-law Gary Shults.

"She's a formidable woman, as sharp as a tack," he told the Associated Press. "My brother says she's the best pilot he knows."

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