A pilot who was told women can’t fly saved a planeload of people

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.

Posted by Diana McBride Self on Tuesday, April 17, 2018

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.”

  • Guest

    Yep, 1979 expectations were about “men’s work and women’s work”

  • Guest

    What changes in folks lives after a close-call? Few would be surprised had the whole plane crashed after an engine exploding.

    DO folks treat loved ones differently? Do they just continue with the busyness of life?

    Facing the fact that death was a split second away or the luck of the draw changes what?

    Thoughts please.

    • I participated in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and experienced a number of close calls. Yes, it changes you. For a time, you see life as the gift it is, but only for a time. Unfortunately the mental scars that come from those experiences long outlast the positive change it has in your outlook. I am no less lucky today to have survived those situations than I was 15 years ago, but I don’t feel lucky to be alive anymore.

  • Al

    It’s why, when I hear I have a female pilot I know I’m in safe hands–she’s had to work 10 times harder than your average male pilot to get where she is. (And even more so for a woman of color.)

    • Kassie

      I started and stopped and started a very similar comment a few times. You put it much more eloquently than I could.

  • Mike

    The idea that women couldn’t fly planes would have come as a big surprise to the Soviet Air Force of World War II, which was the first to allow women to serve as combat pilots.

    The “Night Witches,” as the Germans called them, were deadly. They dropped 23,000 tons of bombs on the German army, from planes that were little more than glorified crop dusters.


  • chlost

    An amazing pilot. I hope she is recognized for that. Not as a female pilot. But as a Pilot.
    From my perspective, this is something that many younger professionals don’t have a full appreciation for-those women who pioneered in careers that many males were dismissive of their talents and skills. Today, many in those careers just assume that women can do the job, whether as doctors, lawyers, pilots, architects, or tradesworkers. Just imagine the pool of talent and skills we would have lost out on as a society if women like this had not broken the code that “women can’t do that job”.

    • Kassie

      As a somewhat “younger professional” I find quite a few men still dismissive of my talents, so I think those younger than me get it too.

      • Barton

        Yup, Kassie. I’m not young anymore, but I still hear this from young women getting into my industry. There aren’t enough women who have succeeded to not recognize what has come before. We are still seen as not being able to do “that job.”

  • NathanT

    My favorite picture of my grandmother is her nonchalantly stepping off the wing of a plane after finishing her first solo flight. That was in the 1950s and the forced egalitarianism of WWII, with women flying trans-Atlantic ferry flights, had faded to an era where “women simply do not”.

    My grandmother passed away years ago but something tells me she’d be awfully proud of Captain Shults.

  • Zachary

    Side tangent – but is it “sucked out of” or “blown out of”? My rudenmentry physics understanding seems that it should be “blown out of” as you are in a high-pressure enclosed area going to a low-pressure open area. Vacuum cleaners suck, as it’s a low-pressure enclosed area from a higher pressure open area.
    Or does it even matter?

    • I don’t know. A plane is sucked into the air because of the lower pressure on the top of the wings, imho… although I suppose some people would say it’s blown into the sky.

      Does a door slam because it was blown closed on a windy day or is it sucked shut because of the low pressure caused by the fluid’s (air’s) speed?

      • Jack Ungerleider

        The call it “lift” for a reason. It’s the high pressure that pushes you in to the air.

        As far as the poor woman pushed through the window, think about exiting the Dome through those revolving doors.

        • No, it’s the low pressure that lifts you into the air.

          • Jack Ungerleider

            I concede to your experience as a pilot.
            But I looked up the “physics of lift” and this is one of the first results:

            From NASA it looks like it has everything to do with fluid flow and Newton’s Third Law (equal and opposite actions) then with specifics of pressure.

          • // it has everything to do with fluid flo

            bernoulli principle

            it’s both a dessert topping and a floor wax. Nothing happens without BOTH high and lower pressure

          • Jack Ungerleider

            My favorite Bernoulli Principle demonstration involves a dollar bill that’s allowed to curve while being held just below the lower lip. If you blow down on the bill (think of a flute player blowing into a flute) the far end will flutter up into the air.

          • John

            No. it’s the higher pressure under the wings pushing you into the air.

            I only posted this because I want to feel what my children feel when they are arguing about something completely pointless. . . which is almost every day.

            I must not be feeling it, because I’m going to stop now, but they won’t.

          • John

            no, science is not pointless (it pays for my MPR membership and my mortgage), but I think arguments about whether low pressure pulls a plane up, or high pressure pushes it up are pointless.

            (spoiler alert: it’s neither – the difference between them is what matters)

            dangit. I’ve just been pulled back in when I said I was done. Well trolled, Mr. Collins.

    • Jeff

      I’d say it depends what side of the window you’re on. Either way knowing how small the windows are it sounds awful.

    • John

      It’s just semantics. Sucking/Blowing – either way, it’s air moving from a high pressure area to a lower pressure area.

      Physics professors the world around insist there’s no such thing as sucking, only blowing. (see also: pushing vs. pulling)

    • Bruce Sikkema

      Air velocity creats low pressure. It’s called Bernoulli’s law.

  • BJ

    Wow. That audio.

  • MrE85

    “recounted her senior year in high school in 1979 when an airman — a retired colonel — gave a lecture on aviation.”

    I was reminded of the story my long-suffering wife told me of a National Guard recruiting visit to her high school in the 1970s. She was interested in attending, but it was strictly a “boy’s only” event. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/13c05c747242949829038320b0cb712733cf95a549ddcde57f68f3b0edc9bb88.jpg

  • L. Foonimin

    Captain Shults and her First Officer sounded calmer and less stressed than some of the Controllers, by all accounts she did an excellent job

  • >>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.<<

    As an aside, I play hockey with a few NY and Philly controllers. They are as cool as cucumbers.

  • >>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.<<

    Was she strapped in or did she not have her seat belt on?

    EDIT: She apparently WAS strapped in…

    • Barton

      oh no. I have – like everyone else – assumed she wasn’t strapped in. This makes it so much more horrifying.

  • KTFoley

    I listened to the audio and her matter-of-fact demeanor reminded me of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. They’re in a very exclusive club, those two.

    (Or maybe it’s because I get all my air traffic audio from Bob, and remember only those two and that guy who had no business trying to land at Oshkosh.)

    With full respect to the demanding work that Air Traffic Controllers do every day, I imagine part of the reason the pilots needed to repeat themselves is that the ATCs didn’t quite believe what they heard the first time through.

  • 1reeldeal2

    I flew 33 years for NWA (1959-1992) DC-4’s to B-747’s. No question she did a good job but I am surprised that she did not immediately go the Emergency Only radio frequency and declare “Mayday, Mayday “to eliminate all the other aircraft from being on her frequency.
    Back in the late 1960’s or early 70’s I had the 2nd NWA woman pilot flying 2nd officer at the panel to my right rear during a 6 month flight proficiency simulator check ride. When I would not be pleased with the maneuver I was doing I scolded myself with pretty fowl language. After 2 or 3 maneuvers the copilot yelled at me and said ” remember, we have a woman on board”. I glanced at her and then told the copilot “I don’t see a woman on board, just another “F–cking pilot”.
    After the flight I apologized to her and she said, “That’s the best compliment I’ve ever had…I just want to be another “F–cking pilot”. We were good friends after that and she went on to become the Chief Pilot of NWA after I retired. She was about 5′ 4″ and was a widow when NWA hired her.

    • I’m not. She was already under direction of an ATC controller whose job it would be to assign her another frequency of his choosing if frequency congestion was an issue .

      121.5 is monitored by controllers so you’re going to be talking to them anyway. Why disconnect from the center frequency to go to another frequency when you’re going to be talking to center anyway, who is going to tell you what frequency to go to because you’re not going to be staying on 121.5.

      Also, she was already descending. I’d sure what that controller who’s running that airspace to clear the lane for her.

      • Ran this by a friend of mine who flies for a major airline:

        ” There is no reason to switch to 21.5 in this situation. Normal procedure would be to transmit your distress call on the frequency of the controller who’s airspace you are in. Some arrivals have you switching frequencies very often and that can be a bit much when dealing with abnormals. So sometimes you will ask for a discrete frequency. The captain did say “no more channel changes” when she was with approach, but by then there weren’t any more to do so it became a non issue.

        • 1reeldeal2

          I guess I’ve been away from aviation for too long. Last flight was 15 Aug. 1992 age 60.All your points make sense. I believed that all ATC facilities monitored 121.5. Our practice was one radio on ATC and an other one always tuned to 121.5.

        • 1reeldeal2

          “The captain did say “no more channel changes””
          I guess that proves my point, if she was on 121.5 there would have been 0 zero channel changes.
          And when she started her emergency decent the controller would see her blip altitude display on the radar start to unwind and would have heard her Mayday call.

          • When you make a call on 121.5, it’s ONLY to get the attention of a controller. It’s not intended to be the exclusive channel on which emergency communication takes place. Almost always, once you connect with a controller on 121.5, you’re going to be sent to another discreet channel.

            So the value of 121.5 is of little use when you’re ALREADY talking to a controller.

            And, of course, the reason you change frequency is because you’re moving into and out of areas of radio coverage as you’re handed off from controller to controller.

            I’ve talked to several airline pilots in the last couple of days on this, and NONE of them thought that dropping off her existing frequency to go to 121.5 made any sense at all.

            One of them, a Delta captain, offered this when I asked:

            “That commenter just outed themselves as not-a-former-NWA-pilot. No airline guy would say that.”

            I’m just passing that along; not taking a particular side on his allegation. But I’m wondering what NWA had their emergency checklists w.r.t. frequency.

            Today I spent some time reading cockpit voice recordings of some of the more famous airline incidents. There was not a single one in which a captain went to 121.5 to make the initial alert if they were already on a center (controller) frequency. They reported to the the frequency they were already on.

            That suggests to me that there’s no guidance that any airline is providing that says you should leave the controller you’re with to go to another frequency to try to find another one.

          • 1reeldeal2

            I’m sure I was flying for NWA decades before the Delta captain guy was born. Date of hire 09/01/1959, 59 years ago ! Maybe I was even retired at age 60 before he was born. 08/1992, 26 years ago.

          • He lives on a sailboat now in the Carribbean. You flyboys have it made! :*)

      • 1reeldeal2

        I don’t think she actually declared an emergency, only that she was “single engine”. Declaring “Mayday, Mayday” let’s everyone on that frequency know your in serious trouble. During my B-747 days with NWA on a simulator check ride we had 2 engines out on the same side and told that to the controller. When we were on short final and unable to go around the instructor put a pick up truck out onto the runway in front of us and of course we had to land and crash on top of it. We were pissed at the instructor and asked “why did you do that? He said because “YOU DID NOT DECLARE AN EMERGENCY”.
        Can the B-737 she was flying able to go around on one engine after it is in “final landing configuration’? ATC does not necessarily know the limitations of every type aircraft. Maybe it can and maybe it can not,. I don’t know.

        • I’m not sure whether the LiveATC audio is the totality of it or not so I can’t offer much there. I think LiveATC was scoping several different frequencies and I don’t think they got everything.

          One reason I think it was smart to stay on center’s frequency is she was already descending before first contact (after the emergency) and I think it wasn’t a bad idea to have the controller working the airspace to have that information as soon as possible., particularly since shortly thereafter he points out “traffic just below you.”

          I do know in the first 19 seconds of the audio, she seems to have pretty well communicated that she’s on fire and the controller basically gave her the run of the sky. I don’t see the time it takes to go to another frequency, make your call up and then wait for a controller to respond to you (maybe the same controller) could be accomplished in 19 seconds. Maybe. But one reason I stay on center frequency when I fly is precisely so that if there’s a problem, I’m talking immediately to the controller who was already watching me and knows who I am, where I am, and where I was going.

  • Bruce Sikkema

    During the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, Jackie Cochran set more flight records, usually in U.S. fighter aircraft, than any man or woman, ever. Look it up. Also look up, W.A.S.P., Gen. Hap Arnold, and Nancy Harkness Love. Or read “Daughters of Amelia Earhart”

    • Yep, she’s the greatest.

      Also worth noting she was one of 13 women who passed the same tests as men who wanted to be astronauts. But then the program was canceled even though some of them had more flight experience than the test pilot men who were the original astronauts.

  • 1reeldeal2

    Back in the 60’s or 70’s there was a Columbian B-707 going into JFK that was running out of fuel and NEVER DECLARED AN EMERGENCY and got a go around order from the tower. THEY DID NOT QUITE MAKE IT BACK ON THE 2ND APPREOACH AND CRASHED SHORT OF THE RUNWAY !
    So much for not declaring an emergency !

    • I was there then. 1990.

      Lousy piloting. They’d been in a holding pattern for an hour. and let the time elapse when diverting to Boston would have been possible.

      ATC, already talking to the flight, asked them how much longer they could hold, to which the reply was “about five minutes.” They were then cleared to the approach — they were given priority because of their fuel state — and actually were on final for the runway when they lost sight of it. Gah. They were only a mile and half away from it.

      So they executed a missed approach and declared an emergency. That was 9 minutes before the crash. They were screwed the minute they lost sight of the runway.

      But it was too late, there was nothing ATC could do for them since they’d allowed themselves to run out of fuel and didn’t tell anyone.

      REALLY poor airmanship.

      The NTSB also found that a contributing factor was that there was no adequate terminology (standardized) for UNDERSTANDABLE minimum emergency fuel terminology.

      What’s that old saying about FAA regulations and procedures being written in blood? Really sad.


      The Southwest pilot had no such problem. As soon as she said “we have an engine on fire”, the controller put all of the system at her command. They all did their jobs spectacularly.