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Girls & Women

The Pilot Hero From That Southwest Flight Is a Female Badass Navy Legend

By Joanna Prisco, for Global Citizen

A Southwest Airlines pilot is being lauded as a hero today, after saving the lives of 148 passengers on a flight from New York to Dallas that blew an engine 20 minutes into its journey.

Her name is Tammie Jo Shults.

A veteran fighter pilot for the US Navy and graduate of MidAmerica Nazarene University, according to the Washington Post, Shults was at the controls of Flight 1380 when the Boeing 737 blew an engine, was hit with shrapnel and lost a window — causing the cabin to depressurize.

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While passengers screamed through their oxygen masks and braced for impact, the female pilot was able to calmly steer the aircraft to an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport.

"She has nerves of steel,” said passenger Alfred Tumlinson in an interview with the Associated Press. “That lady, I applaud her. I'm going to send her a Christmas card — I'm going to tell you that— with a gift certificate for getting me on the ground. She was awesome.”

Family members echoed the sentiment.

“She's a formidable woman, as sharp as a tack," said the pilot’s brother-in-law Gary Shults in the Associated Press report. "My brother says she's the best pilot he knows. She's a very caring, giving person who takes care of lots of people."

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One passenger was killed and seven others were hurt during the mid-air emergency. Jennifer Riordan, a married mother of two from New Mexico, died after the plane's shattered windows partially sucked her body out of the aircraft, reported CNN.

But US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao praised the pilot and crew for the measures taken on board to prevent further tragedy.

"I commend the pilots who safely landed the aircraft, and the crew and fellow passengers who provided support and care for the injured, preventing what could have been far worse," Chao said in a statement.

Had Shults not been so persistent early on in her career, she might not have been at the controls on Tuesday.

In the book “Military Fly Moms,” by Linda Maloney, Shults shared personal experiences of gender bias that extended from attending an aviation lecture in high school at which she was dismissively asked if she “was lost” to having her applications ignored by the Air Force.

After doggedly pursuing recruiters with the Naval aviation program, she was eventually accepted to aviation officer candidate school and became a flight instructor upon completion.

Shults would later became one of the first women to fly the F/A-18 Hornet, a multirole combat jet, designed as both a fighter and attack aircraft.

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But due to the combat exclusion law, Shults was prohibited from flying in a combat squadron and was only permitted to operate jets for the Navy in a support capacity, such as providing electronic warfare training to Navy ships and aircraft, during her 10-year tenure.

Though such barriers may have occasionally dampened her spirit, they could never diminish Shults’ skills inside the cockpit.

“This is a true American Hero,” wrote passenger Diana McBride Self, in a Facebook post thanking the pilot for saving her life.

Global Citizen campaigns on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, and reduced inequalities is goal number 10. This goal calls for the “social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status.”

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