Nerves of Steel: A Conversation With Pilot Tammie Jo Shults

Captain Tammie Jo Shults was one of the first women to pilot the F-18 Hornet fighter jet in the U.S. Navy and has spent over 20 years as a pilot for Southwest Airlines. She gives God all the glory for enabling her to land a crippled airliner in 2018, saving the lives of 148 passengers and crew. She and her husband, Dean, also a Southwest pilot, live in Texas and have two adult children, one of whom is also a pilot. She shares her story in a new book titled “Nerves of Steel.”

Q: How did your childhood lay a foundation for your career as a pilot?

A: I was certainly given much in life because I had a family that cherished me. My dad wasn’t a Christian until much later in life, but he treated me just like he treated my brothers. I had the same responsibility given to me, with the same authority to carry it out and the same accolades when I finished it.

When you come into a relationship with God, you realize that He’s more than the Creator—He’s a Redeemer. And that means He’s not a God who’s hanging out, waiting for me to mess up; He’s a God who loves me. And that was a big “aha” moment for me, right before I went into high school. 

Q: When your family was living in New Mexico, you were near the White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base, with planes flying overhead. How did that contribute to your dream of being a pilot?

A: Getting to see the planes overhead was entertaining. And then I started thinking, There’s somebody in there doing that; it takes a person to do that. Man, that looks like fun! I did not get any encouragement from my folks, but the summer before I started high school, which is when I came to know the Lord, I read a book called “Jungle Pilot,” about [missionary pilot] Nate Saint. And then I knew that being a pilot would be a fit for me. 

Q: But you faced a lot of obstacles on your way to becoming a Navy pilot. 

A: Before I graduated from college, I spoke with both the Army and Air Force, but they wouldn’t even let me take their tests. I passed the Navy test, but the recruiter told me: “We don’t need girls. I’m not processing your paperwork.” I headed to Western New Mexico University for graduate school. Finally, I said, “I’m going to try one more time.” 

Looking back, I am amazed at how God orchestrates His will. If I’d have gotten in when I wanted to, I’d have never met Dean, my husband. We never would have crossed paths. I wouldn’t have flown F-18s. So many things in life would have been different. So I am grateful for all those spacers that were given to me in the word no.

Q: One way you dealt with insults and adversity during your flight training was by pouring your heart out before the Lord in a journal. How did that help you?

A: My mom told me in junior high school, “Tell the Lord on them. Tattle on them.” And then when you’re finished tattling on them, do like David and the other psalmists did. Like in Psalm 35:1: “Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me!” It’s a “Go-get-em, God” psalm. And then you’ll be at peace to actually pray for them the way Christ said to pray for them. They’re His; your hands are off. 

Q: When you left the Navy and started with Southwest, you lost your job for a time because of false accusations about your safety record. You had some guys who were out to railroad you, right?

A: I would say gunning for me. That six months of darkness was horrible. It’s one thing to lose your job, but then to have your reputation as a Christian tarnished by saying that you are a liar, I think that just smote my spirit for a while. Then one morning I got up and God said, “All right, dry the tears; let’s get going. Time to fight.”

And when God wants doors pushed open, He can do it whether the people involved are godly or not. After two days of hearings before Southwest company representatives,
I got my job back.

Q: Tell us about Flight 1380 on April 17, 2018.

A: We were heading off from LaGuardia to Dallas for a four-hour flight with 144 passengers. We had been airborne for about 20 minutes and were passing 32,500 feet when it felt like a truck hit the side of the aircraft. My first thought was that we had been hit—that we’d had a midair collision. My first officer, Darren Ellisor, and I both grabbed the controls and watched as the left engine instruments flashed and wound down. The aircraft began to shudder so violently that we couldn’t focus our eyes. The cockpit filled with smoke.

Just as suddenly, a deafening roar enveloped us. We couldn’t see, we couldn’t breathe, and a piercing pain stabbed our ears, all while the aircraft snapped into a rapid roll and skidded hard to the left as the nose of the aircraft pitched over, initiating a dive toward the ground.

A piece of a turbine fan blade in the left engine had broken off and caused catastrophic engine damage. Shrapnel from the explosion took out chunks of the leading edge of the wing and the tail, ripped a panel underneath the wing and severed hydraulic lines around the engine.

A piece of debris shattered the window at Row 14, and all the air rushed out of the aircraft. The passenger seated there was partially sucked out the window, held in by her seat belt. Passengers and crew worked valiantly to get her back inside the cabin and performed CPR to try to save her life. She did not survive. 

The damage to the left side of the aircraft is what caused the violent shuddering. Instead of an engine under the left wing, we now had what amounted to an anchor. 

Working together, we stopped the roll at a little over 40 degrees of bank and stomped on the right rudder to pull the nose around. We had to work with the plane, not against it—737s are not designed to be yanked and banked like an F-18 Hornet. 

As chaotic as things were in the cockpit, they were worse in the cabin. Even as we regained control, the plane continued its bone-jarring shudder. Passengers screamed, cried, prayed, held hands and sent messages to their loved ones on the ground. 

I made a cabin announcement that many of the people were able to hear in spite of the roar. “We are not going down,” I said. “We are going to Philly.” Afterward, passengers said that one simple message made all the difference. They knew we were still in control of the aircraft, we had a plan and we had a destination. I think about how important that is in our spiritual walk and our relationships, and it doesn’t have to change our circumstances to change us. We were still in the same aircraft, but it changed everything. The panic began to subside. 

In an emergency situation, it’s the captain’s responsibility to land the plane, regardless of whose turn it is to fly, so I took over the controls from Darren. I had my hands full maintaining control of the aircraft and communicating with air traffic control. 

Finally, the tower controller told us we were cleared to land. I had one more 90-degree right turn to go to line up with the runway. But when I put in the controls to make the final right turn, absolutely nothing happened. There was a brief moment of silence on the radio as well as in the cockpit. Months later, when Darren and I had the opportunity to listen to the cockpit voice recording of that flight, we heard the silence broken with two words from me that formed a question.

“Heavenly Father?”

While I certainly remember thinking it, I didn’t realize I had said it out loud. 

“Lord, what am I missing?”

There was nothing I could do about the weight of the aircraft or the extreme drag hanging off the left wing. My only option was in the palm of my right hand. The answer was clear, but it was not what I wanted. The last thing I wanted to do was pull power on my good engine and sacrifice airspeed and altitude. But I didn’t have a choice. The aircraft simply would not turn right with all of the drag pulling the left wing backward and all of the thrust from the good engine pushing the right wing forward. 

I eased the right throttle back, stood on the right rudder and fed in some ailerons (input that tells the aircraft which way to turn). It worked! As the nose slowly swung around to the right and we were finally headed toward a nice long piece of concrete, I called for landing gear down.

I knew I had one shot at landing. There was only so much power I could add before it overcame my rudder authority to keep the plane pointing at the runway, and that power setting, now with the added drag of my landing gear, had us decelerating and in a descent. There would be no second chance. 

I could see that the fire trucks were at the far end of the runway, so I intended to let the aircraft roll down to them. At 11:23 a.m., we were on the ground. “Nice Air Force landing,” said Darren, an Air Force veteran.

As we rolled out, the cockpit voice recorder captured me saying, “Thank You, Lord. Thank You, thank You, Lord.”

Q: What lessons do you hope readers take away from your book?

A: The habits that you make on the ground, in building character, all come together to sum up who you are and what you are. Whenever your mettle is tested, it’s not just your flying skills that are going to be tested. It’s going to be your ability to focus, your ability to do what you focus on—all the things you have previously put in your tool kit to use now.  

 

The Scripture quotation is taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

Interviewed by Jim Dailey, executive editor.

Above: The damaged jet sits on the runway at Philadelphia International Airport on April 17, 2018.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images