Tammie Jo Shults addressed a room of 2,000 at a Grapevine hotel on Tuesday with the same graceful tone that the world last heard on an emergency call with air traffic controllers in Philadelphia. The words themselves had been horrifying, but her voice was in control. “It’s not on fire, but part of it is missing,” she said on April 17. “They said there’s a hole and someone went out.”
She delivered a speech with that same calming tone at the Gaylord Texan; it was reflective and somber, but also hopeful and insightful. Shults’ address was her first time speaking before a crowd about Southwest Flight 1380, which suffered engine damage while 32,500 feet in the air, en-route to Dallas Love Field from New York’s LaGuardia. Shrapnel from the left engine shattered a window and resulted in a woman’s death. The plane plunged 8,000 feet in two minutes, then 13,000 over the next five. All the while, Shults was the rock, safely guiding the 737 down in Philadelphia, coordinating with the folks on the ground for the emergency landing.
“I think God gives us a calm when we need it,” Shults says. “I mean as parents, whenever there’s a bad cut, or a broken bone you don’t go emotional. You keep your calm because your child’s watching your face.”
Shults was invited to speak during the National Retail Federation’s annual loss prevention conference. She intertwined advice to conference-goers on ways to effectively interact with their own teams and coworkers. She urged them always give credit where credit is due. She exemplified this principle by attributing the safe landing to her faith, but also shifted the spotlight from her to her crew.
“When I opened the door, I expected to see frightened, angry, anxious people,” Shults said. “Instead I opened the door to this calm, quiet, attentive group of people, and that is due to the credit of our flight crew, Rachel, Sheanique and Kathryn, and also to those passengers.”
Although 148 people safely returned home, one didn’t. Jennifer Riordan was killed in the accident, and Shults spent time during her speech honoring her memory.
“The survival of many will never eclipse the loss of one. We returned 148 people to their families and loved ones, but we were not able to do that for Jennifer, and that will always lay heavy on my heart, and on the heart of my team, my crew, my company,” Shults said. She held back tears and paused to maintain her composure.
Shults took a month off from flying, and during her hiatus was thrust into the spotlight. She was interviewed by People Magazine, was hosted by President Donald Trump at the White House, and told her story on ABC’s 20/20. Returning to the cockpit was calling to her. As she told husband and fellow pilot, Dean: “’I need to go fly, I need a slice of normal.’”
Before resuming her pilot duties, Shults took time to recover with her crew. “Being the oldest on the team and having gone through other things before this, I really put my hands to making sure that they all had what they needed,” Shults says. “We got together once a week, we did different things, and it was really good to take care of them.”
Shults says during her time off, her family brought her a sense of normalcy amid new fame and honor. “My family has honestly been what they’ve always been. Sincere and loving, and my 18-year-old even puts his dishes away a little better,” Shults says.
And Southwest Airlines is recognizing Shults’ contribution to aviation by giving her a better parking spot. “I don’t usually drive, but my husband and I fly our little airplane,” Shults says. “They let us park it at the Southwest maintenance hangar.”