When a woman died aboard a Southwest Airlines flight after the plane’s engine exploded on Tuesday, she became an unusual statistic. Jennifer Riordan, 43, the head of community relations for Wells Fargo in Albuquerque, N.M., is the first person to die on a scheduled airline in the United States since 2009.
After the explosion blew a hole in the fuselage, Riordan was sucked out of the plane. Passengers pulled her back in but she was too badly hurt.
This recording of communications between the pilot and an entire air traffic control system (via LiveATC.net) provides a reason why her death is so unusual. They’re really good at their jobs.
Tammie Jo Shults was the pilot who quickly landed her crippled jet. She’s a former fighter pilot, the first woman to fly an F-18 for the Navy.
“She has nerves of steel,” Alfred Tumlinson, a passenger, told 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.”
After the landing, Shults entered the cabin to talk to each passenger.
In a book of women who fly, Shults, who declined reporter requests for an interview on Tuesday, recounted her senior year in high school in 1979 when an airman — a retired colonel — gave a lecture on aviation.
She was the only girl to show up and the 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 wrote. “He allowed me to stay but assured me there were no professional women pilots.”
Over this planet on Tuesday, there was no more professional a pilot than Tammie Jo Shults.
Says the Washington Post:
When she met a woman in college who had received her Air Force wings, she wrote, “I set to work trying to break into the club.”
But Shults, whose maiden name is Bonnell, wrote that the Air Force “wasn’t interested” in talking to her. The Navy let her apply for aviation officer candidate school, “but there did not seem to be a demand for women pilots.”
“Finally,” she wrote, a year after taking the Navy aviation exam, she found a recruiter who would process her application. After aviation officer candidate school in Pensacola, Fla., she was assigned to a training squadron at Naval Air Station Chase Field in Beeville, Tex., as an instructor pilot teaching student aviators how to fly the Navy T-2 trainer. She later left to fly the A-7 Corsair in Lemoore, Calif.
By then, she met her “knight in shining airplane,” a fellow pilot who would become her husband, Dean Shults. (He also now flies for Southwest Airlines.)
Because of the combat exclusion law, Tammie Jo Shults was prohibited from flying in a combat squadron. While her husband was able to join a squadron, her choices were limited, involving providing electronic warfare training to Navy ships and aircraft.
She later became one of the first women to fly what was then the Navy’s newest fighter, the F/A-18 Hornet, but again in a support role. “Women were new to the Hornet community, and already there were signs of growing pains.”
She served in the Navy for 10 years, reaching the rank of Navy lieutenant commander. She left the Navy in 1993, and now lives in the San Antonio area with her husband. She has two children — a teenage son and a daughter in her early 20s.
As she was handed off from air traffic controller to air traffic controller during the emergency, she told each one “good day.”