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How Southwest pilot Tammie Jo Shults stayed calm in the cockpit

Twenty minutes after takeoff, Southwest Flight 1380 had to make an emergency landing. One of the engines had exploded, sending metal fragments into cabin and shattering a window, killing passenger Jennifer Riordan. Pilot Tammie Jo Shults, a former navy pilot, is being praised for how she reacted. Science correspondent and aviation expert Miles O'Brien joins Judy Woodruff to discuss what happened.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next, the pilot in charge of that emergency landing of a Southwest Airlines jet this week.

    Southwest Flight 1380, traveling from New York City to Dallas on Tuesday, had to land in Philadelphia 20 minutes after takeoff. One of the engines had exploded in midair, sending metal fragments into the wing and into the cabin.

    Passenger Jennifer Riordan died after a nearby window shattered and she was pulled halfway out the opening, while other passengers tried to save her.

    Most of the 148 other people on the plane were not hurt, and pilot Tammie Jo Shults, a former Navy pilot, was praised for how she handled the emergency.

    Here is some of Shults’ communication with air traffic control.

  • Tammie Jo Shults:

    Southwest 1380 would like to turn — start turning inbound.

  • Air Traffic Control:

    Southwest 1380, turn — just start turning southbound there. There’s a Southwest 737 on a four-mile final — it will be turning southbound.

    Start looking for the airport. It’s off to your right and slightly behind you there and altitude is your discretion. Use caution for the downtown area.

  • Tammie Jo Shults:

    OK. Could you have the medical meet us there on the runway as well? We have got injured passengers.

  • Air Traffic Control:

    Injured passengers, OK. And are you — is your airplane physically on fire?

  • Tammie Jo Shults:

    Not fire, it’s not on fire, but part of it’s missing. They said there’s a hole and someone went out.

  • Air Traffic Control:

    I’m sorry. You said there was a hole and somebody went out?

  • Tammie Jo Shults:

    Yes.

  • Air Traffic Control:

    Southwest 1380, it doesn’t matter. We will work it out there.

    So, the airport is just off to your right. Report it in sight, please.

  • Tammie Jo Shults:

    In sight. Southwest 1380. Airport is in sight.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A remarkable exchange.

    And our science correspondent, who is also an aviation expert, Miles O’Brien, joins me now.

    So, Miles, I think everybody who was on that plane who has been talking to the press has been saying how grateful they are to the pilot, Tammie Jo Shults.

    I mean, remarkable calm. Just how difficult is it to fly a plane under those circumstances?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Judy, the flight crew had an awful lot going on at once, two major emergencies simultaneously, a presumed engine fire, the loss of an engine, all that goes along with that, and an explosive rapid decompression, all that goes along with that.

    Those are two emergencies that flight crews train for and learn by memory what to do. And they had to sort through those checklists simultaneously, while, all at once, the aircraft steeply banking to the left 45 degrees because of the loss of thrust and the extra drag caused by the explosion in the engine, and on top of that having to get down as quickly as possible to an altitude of 10,000 feet, where the air is thick enough for people to breathe.

    And yet what you hear on the radio on the other side of that cockpit door was as routine as it gets, calm, cool, collected. Tammie Jo Shults proved what a great pilot she is. I suspect, given her Navy background, she’s been in some tight situations.

    Landing an F-18 on an aircraft carrier at night in bad weather is not for faint of heart, but this was certainly no walk in the park, and she did it perfectly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, a lot of people are enormously grateful to her.

    But, Miles, that Navy training really can make a difference for a pilot, can’t it?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yes, a lot of people have been making comparisons to Sully Sullenberger and his landing in the Hudson River a few years back.

    I think the common thread here is both these pilots were trained by the military, in case of Sullenberger the Air Force, in Tammie Jo Shults’ case the Navy.

    For years, for decades, the airlines have benefited from the most amazing pilot training in the world done by military, essentially free training. And it really matters the most when the chips are down, as we saw the other day in Philadelphia.

    As time goes on, there are fewer of these pilots moving into the airline world. There are fewer of them in general, fewer cockpits in the military. And the military is hanging on to these pilots longer because it’s very expensive to lose them.

    And so we have to wonder if the civilian training doesn’t quite match the military training in some respects. And you have to wonder, as we look toward the future of airline flying, if the civilian training may want to up its game a little bit.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, Miles, the FAA is saying that it’s ordering inspections of these engines, looking for metal fatigue. Talk about the significance of that.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, what’s most significant, Judy, is there is a hauntingly parallel incident that happened, same airline, same type of aircraft, same type of engine, in August of 2016.

    The only difference is, nobody got hurt. The aircraft got on the ground safely, but exactly the same thing happened, with metal fatigue as the cause, and that fan blade being spit out like a hot, fast piece of shrapnel.

    Subsequent to that, the manufacturer of the engine, CFM, which is a joint venture between GE and the French jet engine maker Safran, sent out a service bulletin to the airlines who had these engines and said, hey, you probably should do some ultrasound testing of these fan blades to make sure there are no cracks, because they’re not necessarily visible.

    Southwest was among the airlines who resisted that call and said they just needed more time to do it and had not done those inspections.

    So, the truth is, if the FAA, the NTSB had acted quicker and with more urgency after that first event in August 2016, this event might not have happened.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you’re saying Southwest and other airlines resisted?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    They did.

    You know, the airline business is a profit-making business. And the fact of the matter is, safety always cost money. And this particular event, as troubling as it should have been its own in August 2016, wasn’t treated with the urgency, I think, it should have.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, now it is certainly getting more attention, a lot more attention.

    Miles O’Brien, we thank you, as always.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You’re welcome, Judy.

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