You’ve probably read about the near-disaster of Southwest Airlines flight 1380, which had to make an emergency landing after an engine exploded at 32,000 feet. It will be months before the NTSB releases a final report, but investigators are already saying one of the blades on a fan inside the engine had broken off. Some piece of shrapnel set loose by the broken blade struck a window leading it to shatter. That led to decompression of the cabin which sucked one woman, Jennifer Riordan, partly out of the plane. Passengers rushed to pull her back inside and then provided CPR but she was later pronounced dead.
Meanwhile, the plane’s captain, a former Navy fighter pilot, remained extremely calm, quickly dropping the plane to an altitude where passengers could breath without masks and asking for a new heading to the nearest airport. From the NY Times:
In an instant, Captain Shults found herself in a situation most pilots face only during training: having to land a plane after an engine goes out.
For the next 40 minutes, she displayed what one passenger later called “nerves of steel,” maneuvering the plane, which had been on its way from La Guardia Airport in New York to Dallas Love Field, toward Philadelphia for an emergency landing.
In the seats behind her, passengers sent goodbye text messages to loved ones, tightened oxygen masks around their faces and braced for impact. Flight attendants frantically performed CPR on the critically injured passenger, who later died at a hospital.
But Captain Shults, 56, was in control. She learned to fly as one of the first female fighter pilots in the Navy three decades ago, piloting the F/A-18 Hornet in an era when women were barred from combat missions.
“Can you have the medical meet us there on the runway,” Captain Shults calmly told air traffic controllers in Philadelphia. “They said there’s a hole and, uh, someone went out.”
If you think maybe that “nerves of steel” line is some kind of exaggerated praise, it’s not. The audio traffic between the plane and the ground shows zero indication in Captain Shults’ voice that she is in an emergency situation. In fact, if you listen to the entire clip, you can hear some stress creeping into the voices of the other air traffic controllers but Shults remains polite and calm throughout.
Shults joined the Navy in the mid-1980s and became one of the first women pilots of the F/A-18 Hornet. Shults resigned in 1993 just a few days before the Navy requested that women be allowed to fly in combat.
After landing the plane, Shults greeted every person getting off the plane. Some of them hugged her. This local news report shows some of the praise from passengers who were elated to survive the ordeal.