She’s the kind of hero we hope and pray we never need and don’t like to think about needing while traveling in a tin can with wings, 35,000 feet above the planet. But to anyone who doubts that a woman has what it takes to fly a fighter jet or a commercial airliner, or who thinks women are too fragile to juggle the demands of stressful careers and families, Tammie Jo Shults, her flight crew, and the passengers on Southwest Air Flight 1380 might have a strong counterargument: When one of the engines on Flight 1380 came apart, opening a hole in the aircraft, the sudden pressure change pulled passenger Jennifer Riordan partially outside the aircraft, and she later died of her injuries. Tammie Jo Shults managed to land the aircraft with extraordinary calm and is credited with saving the lives of everyone else on board.
When I say, “extraordinary calm,” she manages to sound calmer and more pleasant than I do when my PC doesn’t boot fast enough to suit me. You can listen in to her conversation with the tower, here:
Determined to fly at a time when women were not allowed to serve in military combat roles, let alone as fighter jet pilots, Shults went into the Navy and became the first woman to fly the F/A-18 Hornet, under the condition that she did so as a co-pilot. She went on to train Navy pilots, and retired as a Navy Lt. Commander in 1993 – the same year women were finally allowed to serve in combat roles. She is a married mother of two – a teenaged son and a daughter in her twenties – and is married to fellow Southwest Air pilot, Dean Marcus Shults.
And who says a woman in such a demanding profession can’t also be a great mom? “We endeavor to teach our children to be leaders, not lemmings,” she wrote. “This is especially important when it comes to making the right choice while the crowd is pulling in the other direction.”
Gary Shults, her brother-in-law, described her to the Associated Press as a “formidable woman, as sharp as a tack.”
To the 148 people whose lives she saves, to their families and friends, and to Southwest Air, Tammie Jo Shults is a hero. She is also a hero and an inspiration to mighty girls and women everywhere, as they chip away at those glass ceilings and strive to realize their dreams and ambitions.