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Navy veteran honored among aviation greats two years after harrowing Southwest Airlines flight

Tammie Jo Shults is photographed in the early 1990s.

COURTESY LINDA MALONEY

By KYLE ARNOLD | The Dallas Morning News | Published: December 12, 2020

DALLAS (Tribune News Service) — Retired Southwest Airlines pilot Tammie Jo Shults has taken her place next to some of the giants of human flight, including Buzz Aldrin, Charles Lindbergh and Howard Hughes, after being inducted Thursday into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame in San Diego.

Shults, who was a female pioneer as a U.S. Navy pilot, is best known as the captain piloting Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 in April 2018 when a piece of fan blade broke off, tore apart the engine and broke out a window in the Boeing 737\u2032s cabin. The engine damage caused dangerous decompression aboard the plane and pulled a passenger, Jennifer Riordan, partially out of the window and caused her death.

Despite the hazardous conditions amid the unstable aircraft, Shults and First Officer Darren Ellisor calmly piloted the Dallas-bound plane to Philadelphia International Airport and no one else on the plane was seriously injured.

Like most pilots, her commercial aviation career was mostly uneventful until Flight 1380, but she credited her Navy F/A-18 fighter jet training for her quick decision making. It made her a notable figure in modern aviation and put her on the radar of the International Air & Space Hall of Fame.

“I was shocked when they asked me,” said Shults in an interview. “Certainly, this was never part of the horizon I saw for myself.”

Shults and U.S. Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett made for an all-female induction ceremony. The ceremony was held virtually, but past inductees include towering figures such as Chuck Yeager, Amelia Earhart and Bill Boeing. Even Star Wars and Indiana Jones actor Harrison Ford has a spot in the Hall of Fame for his advocacy for private aviation.

Shults, who took early retirement from Southwest in April as part of the airline’s efforts to cut back on expenses to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, lives outside San Antonio and now spends her time with speaking engagements and charity work. She cut back her schedule significantly after Flight 1380 and had started to fly more frequently when the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“This just seemed like the right time to step back and take advantage of some other opportunities that had been placed before me,” Shults said.

Shults, 59, still flies jets for a charity called Angel Flights, which provides transport for passengers in need of distant medical treatment. She has also been a frequent speaker at churches, universities and aviation conferences since she retired. She also said retirement has given her more time to spend with her 1-year-old grandson.

“I’m still so fond of Southwest Airlines and proud of them and the way they treat people internally and externally,” she said. “This is just a new phase of my life.”

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