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Updated: Mar 29, 2023

Think America’s aviation legends are all from the past? Think again! Let’s learn about Tammie Jo Shults, a modern pilot and American hero.

Tammie Jo Shults: A Modern Hero

Captain Tammie Jo Shults is a former strike/fighter pilot who, in 2018, bravely navigated an emergency landing of a SouthWest flight. Today, we are learning about Tammie Jo’s inspiring journey as an aviation hero, a woman in a male-dominated industry, and a role model to kids across America!

A Pivotal Moment

Captain Shults may be known for her recent heroic landing but she’s been in flight for almost three decades! In a Smithsonian-led talk, she told the story of another pivotal moment as a pilot, years before the famous landing. Her squadron’s new skipper “wasn’t happy about having a woman in his ranks” and assigned Tammie Jo the “worst duty possible:” training students in out-of-control flight recovery. During one of these training flights, disaster struck: due to an undetected mechanical, the plane began to spiral instead of stall as planned. Tammie Jo’s training had never included procedures for spiraling aircrafts—but she thought on her feet. By going “back to basics,” Tammie Jo tried different airfoils to successfully get out of the spiral. The experience, which happened long before her famous emergency landing, taught her that she had the tools to solve many problems—even when training hadn’t covered those exact circumstances.

Women Flying High

Women have been in aviation for a long time, and they continue to be! Aviation is a thrilling adventure, fun and challenging. Sometimes there were people who thought, “girls shouldn’t fly” and made it even more challenging. Many schools and museums are showcasing more stories about female pilots and aviation heroes in American history. As VFR pilot and Smithsonian curator Dorothy Cochorane says, “aviation is for everyone!”

What Happened on April 17th, 2018?

In 2018, while Tammie Jo Shults was captaining SouthWest Flight 1380, the aircraft’s engine exploded at 33,000 feet, damaging the wing, tail, fuselage, and a window. As the aircraft shook and the cockpit filled with smoke, condensation, and “a noise that smothered any other sound,” Captain Shults and her crew fought to maintain control of their aircraft. This was a huge challenge— the hydraulic and fuel lines were cut, and the aircraft had lost its ability to level off. With the help of her first officer Darren Lee Ellisor, and flight attendants Rachel Fernheimer, Seanique Mallory and Kathryn Sandoval, Captain Shults was able to make an emergency landing. This required serious teamwork as they re-evaluated their path to Philadelphia International Airport.

“...Aviation is a team sport,” says Captain Shults. She is grateful to the brave passengers who stepped up to help with the crisis: Peggy Phillips, Andrew Needum, and Tim McGinty. “There were so many heroes that day.”

Tammie Jo in Her Words

As a teenager, Tammie Jo was inspired by an aviation book called “Jungle Pilot,” which allowed her to “see aviation through a pilot’s eyes.” When she published her own story/memoir ? autobiography, “Nerves of Steel,” it was in hopes of giving other young future aeronauts a similar experience. Readers will be able to learn all about Captain Shults’ extraordinary career, her brave emergency landing, and how heroes are made.

Getting Interested in Flying

There are all kinds of paths that lead to a career in aviation and flight. For Dorothy Cochorane, that path began when she was hired at the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian. In order to learn more about her research and field, Dorothy started flying with her pilot colleagues. In 1994, she earned a pilot license of her own. Many of her coworkers were WW2 mechanics and wary of a woman in aviation. Once she got her license, those men treated Dorothy with more respect.

Training as a Pilot

If you want to become a pilot, you will need to go to school. There is a lot to learn before you can safely take flight. By the time you’re ready for takeoff, you will have learned everything about the airplane itself, aircraft systems, emergency protocol, and completing pre-flight checklists. All of this is heavily supervised during training.

It is normal for first-time solo pilots to be anxious—that’s part of being human! However, the extensive training they’ve received will make the flight feel like second-nature…even if there is some serious problem-solving to do. That's part of what makes flight such a big and exciting adventure. And as Tammie Jo says, “You never walk away from an adventure unchanged.”



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