Tammie Jo Shults, the pilot of the Southwest Airlines flight that suffered a midair explosion that fatally wounded a passenger and depressurised the cabin, has been hailed a hero for her calm response.
Ms Shults, 56, one of America’s first female fighter jet pilots, reacted calmly as one of her Boeing 737 engines exploded, blowing a cabin window and sucking a female passenger half outside the plane.
Seconds after the disaster she calmly told flight control: “So we have part of the aircraft missing,” recordings revealed.
Asked if the plane was on fire, the pilot replied: “No, it’s not on fire but part of it’s missing. They said there is a hole and someone went out.”
As she talked, Ms Shults dropped the plane rapidly in altitude from about 30,000 to 10,000 feet within 10 minutes of the explosion, to ensure passengers could breathe after air rushed out the smashed window, online flight data showed.
Ms Shults landed the flight, originally bound for Dallas, safely at Philadelphia International at about 11.30am (US time) on Tuesday.
After the landing, passengers said she personally spoke to all of them.
“The pilot came back to speak to each of us personally,” passenger Diana McBride Self wrote on Facebook.
“This is a true American Hero. A huge thank you for her knowledge, guidance and bravery in a traumatic situation. God bless her and all the crew.”
Ms Schults reportedly honed her flying skills as one of the first female fighter pilots in the US Navy – and the first to fly an F-18 fighter jet.
She later became an instructor, as the Navy did not allow women to fly in combat, before resigning in 1993 to join Southwest Airlines as a commercial pilot.
A mother-of-two, originally from New Mexico, Ms Schults now lives with her husband Dean, a fellow pilot, in Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas.
“She has nerves of steel. That lady, I applaud her,” Alfred Tumlinson, of Corpus Christi, Texas, told Philadelphia’s WPVI news.
“I’m going to send her a Christmas card, I’m going to tell you that, with a gift certificate for getting me on the ground. She was awesome.”
There were reports that when Ms Shults was at high school she was turned away from an ‘aviation career day’ event because she was a girl.
Instead, she enrolled at MidAmerica Nazarene University where she studied biology and agribusiness, because of an interest in becoming a veterinarian.
After graduation, she applied to the US air force but was turned away. The US navy welcomed her, though, and she became one of the first female fighter pilots in the navy’s history, and the first woman to fly an F-18 fighter jet.
Despite Ms Shults’ heroic flying, a female passenger, Jennifer Riordan, 43, died after being sucked out through the plane’s broken window up to her waist.
Ms Riordan, a Wells Fargo bank executive, was reportedly stuck outside the plane for several minutes until frantic passengers managed to pull her inside.
Fellow passengers dragged the injured woman inside and tried to plug the hole while others gave her CPR.
Ms Riordan was rushed to hospital after the plane made an emergency landing, where she later died.
Peggy Phillips, a retired nurse who was sitting a row in front of Ms Riordan when the engine exploded, recounted the terrifying moment and the trauma Ms Riordan suffered.
“The window had broken and the suction, the negative pressure, had pulled her outside the plane partially,” she told ABC News.
“If you can possibly imagine going through the window of an aeroplane at about 600mph (965km/h), and hitting either the fuselage or the wing with your body, with your face … I can probably tell you that there was significant trauma to the body.
“Significant head trauma, facial trauma.”
Other passengers were wounded by shrapnel after the window exploded inwards.
Dr Nick Hutchins, an engineering professor at the University of Melbourne, told The New Daily earlier on Wednesday that it was “extremely rare” for a cabin to suddenly depressurise – but that it was “pretty close to my worst nightmare”.
It would have been an “enormous struggle” for passengers to pull Ms Riordan in from the blown-out window, Dr Hutchins said.
“It’s amazing to me that people had the foresight and the ability to pull the passenger back in,” he said.
“There’s going to be a big mass of air that’s trying to escape or exhaust through that blown-out window extremely quickly so the force acting on somebody close to or even being sucked our through that window would be extremely large.”
Despite the incident, air travel is “still extremely safe, compared to any other activities that we routinely take part in during any given day, such as driving or crossing the street”, Dr Hutchins said.
SouthWest Airlines has given its condolences to the victim’s family and has pledged a thorough investigation into how and why the engine exploded.
After inspecting the engine, investigators from the US National Transportation Safety Board said they found evidence of “metal fatigue” at the point where one of the engine’s spinning fan blades sheared off.