Heroic Southwest pilot studied in Olathe, among 1st female fighter pilots in the Navy

Tammie Jo Shults is seen here in the early '90s, during her days as a fighter pilot with the Navy. Shults served for about 10 years.
Tammie Jo Shults is seen here in the early '90s, during her days as a fighter pilot with the Navy. Shults served for about 10 years.

The Southwest pilot hailed as a hero for landing a crippled Southwest plane was among the first female fighter pilots to serve in the U.S. Navy.

The woman also has Johnson County ties, and she recently advocated for female empowerment at an event in the area.

Tammie Jo Shults was at the helm of a twin-engine Boeing 737 on Tuesday with 149 people aboard when one of the aircraft's engines blew. At 32,000 feet, shrapnel from the blown engine smashed a window, and passengers scrambled to save a woman from getting sucked out.

The woman, Jennifer Riordan, died of blunt impact trauma of the head, neck and torso. Seven others were hospitalized with minor injuries, authorities said.

Shults took the plane into a rapid descent and made an emergency landing in Philadelphia as passengers said their prayers and braced for impact.

Hear the pilot of Southwest flight 1380 communicate with air traffic control after one of the engines of the plane fails. The flight made an emergency landing in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

Shults was a pioneer in the 1980s, paving the way for women fighter pilots to serve in the military.

She was "among the first cohort of women pilots to transition to tactical aircraft," said Navy spokeswoman Christina Sears in a statement.

Shults was a 1983 graduate of MidAmerica Nazarene in Olathe, where she earned degrees in biology and agribusiness, said Carol Best, a university spokeswoman.

She was commissioned in the Navy in 1985.

Cindy Foster, a classmate of Shults' at MidAmerica, said Shults was met with "a lot of resistance" in the Navy because of her gender. Shults had long had a love for flying, and she chose the Navy only after the Air Force denied her a chance to become a pilot, Foster said.

Hear the pilot of Southwest flight 1380 communicate with air traffic control after one of the engines of the plane catches fire. The flight, which was heading from New York City to Dallas, made an emergency landing in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

"She knew she had to work harder than everyone else," Foster said. "She did it for herself and all women fighting for a chance. ... I'm extremely proud of her. She saved a lot of lives."

Foster said that not only was Shults among the first female fighter pilots, she was the first woman to fly an F/A-18 Hornet for the Navy.

Shults once had an instructor who said he found it "degrading" for a woman to be in the cockpit, according to a story in the San Antonio Express-News.

"I told him Congress has stated that I am going to be here. If you don't like that, vote," Shults recalled for the publication.

Shults eventually transitioned into a role as an instructor pilot. She remained on active duty until 1993 and was in the Naval Reserve until her retirement in 2001, according to the Navy.

Foster recalled Shults' calm demeanor and disciplined lifestyle, remembering their days on the college volleyball team. Later, Shults was in Foster's wedding.

"She said she wasn't going to let anyone tell her she couldn't," Foster said.

Kim Young, another longtime friend, said she wasn't surprised by Shults' composure during the emergency.

"That's what she does, and she's good at it," she said.

Young said Shults' military training prepared her to handle the emergency calmly.

Kevin Garber, the director of alumni relations for MidAmerica Nazarene, said Shults gave a speech to about 30 people last spring on campus.

Garber recalled how Shults advocated for diversity in the workforce and encouraged women to crack through in male-dominated fields.

"She had tenacity to do something that excelled beyond the norm of what women were allowed or expected to do," Garber said of Shults' success as a pilot. "She pushed the limits and became what she strived for."

Shults was commended by passengers for her cool-headed handling of the emergency.

Her voice remained calm as she communicated with air traffic control in Philadelphia.

"We have a part of the aircraft missing, so we're going to need to slow down a bit," Shults said from the cockpit. Later, she adds, "They said there's a hole and ... and, uh, someone went out."

Passenger Alfred Tumlinson said Shults had "nerves of steel."

Added Eric Zilbert, another passenger, "The plane was steady as a rock after (the engine blew). I didn't have any fear that it was out of control."

Diana McBride Self, who wrote on Facebook that she was aboard Flight 1380, thanked Shults for navigating the plane to safety.

"Her grace and knowledge under pressure were remarkable," she wrote. "She came through the plane personally to check on us after she landed our crippled airplane. ... We were truly all in amazing hands."

Shults lives outside San Antonio and is married to a pilot.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Philadelphia Fire Commissioner discusses Southwest Airline engine incident that killed one passenger and injured several others. FAA says the flight from New York to Dallas made an emergency landing in Philadelphia.