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Saving Flight 1380

One passenger died in this airline tragedy. But it could have been worse if not for this pilot’s nerves of steel.

Capt. Tammie Jo Shults 

Bam! The aircraft shuddered and skidded as if it had been T-boned by a Mack truck.

My first officer, Darren Ellisor, and I lunged for the controls of our Dallasbound Southwest Boeing 737. The left engine instruments flashed and wound down. The jump seat oxygen masks and fire gloves flew out and bounced around. The cockpit filled with smoke.

Then a deafening roar enveloped us—a stabbing pain in our ears. The engine had exploded, but there was more going on. The plane was still skidding left when it pitched over in a determined descent.

This has a familiar feel, I thought as I put on my oxygen mask. Not welcome but familiar. Maybe that was good.

As a Navy flight instructor 30 years ago, I’d taken a student up to practice on a calm-wind day a couple months before my wedding. Our first maneuver was a clean stall, done with the gear and flaps up. My student followed proper procedure when the nose dropped— relaxing pressure on the stick and positively neutralizing the controls, then adding power. But instead of coming back into control, the plane whipped around and dove straight down.

I grabbed the controls while my student called out the altitude: “Twentyfive thousand, twenty-four…”

Not that I knew all would turn out well, but I’d learned panic doesn’t help me think. I’d been so anxious as a child that doctors had recommended tranquilizers. My parents refused. When I got into a spiral of anxiety, my parents would help me shift focus.

“Tammie Jo,” my dad would say when I sat down to breakfast. “Get your jeans on. I need your help in the barn.”

Focusing on a task made all the difference, whether it was riding a horse or building a trough. It helped me channel my anxiety and fear of failure into finding a solution.

“Twenty. Nineteen. Eighteen. Seventeen,” my student called out.

The plane was out of control, and there were no recovery procedures for this situation in our manuals. I racked my brain for answers. We plunged ten thousand feet. If we weren’t in control by five thousand, we’d have to eject.

Really, Lord? I thought. Dean and I are getting married soon, and ejections are messy! The announcements are out. We can’t change the date.

I was annoyed at the thought of horrible wedding pictures. I stomped on the rudders. Left! Right! Left! Then threw the stick forward and reached for the ejection handle.

The plane wobbled out of its tight spiral. We leveled off.

But today I was in a Boeing 737, not a Navy T-2. It wasn’t designed for sudden changes in trajectory. We had to steer gently. Letting the airplane settle down is an important step before making new demands on it. I allowed it to descend for the first few minutes—what felt to some passengers like a free fall.

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September 2019