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Heroic Southwest pilot describes fatal flight

Pilot Tammie Jo Shults appeared in her first interview since safely landing Southwest Airlines Flight 1380. The aircraft experienced engine failure while flying from New York to Texas.

Posted: May 12, 2018 7:04 AM
Updated: May 12, 2018 7:04 AM

When an engine failed on a Southwest Airlines flight last month, pilot Tammie Jo Shults didn't panic. Instead, she fell back on her extensive Navy experience.

"My first thoughts were actually, 'Oh, here we go,'" Shults, 44, told ABC News recently. "Just because it seems like a flashback to some of the Navy flying that we had done."

Shults, who navigated Southwest Flight 1380 to safety, discussed the incident for the first time since the April 17 emergency that left one passenger dead. Shults said on ABC's "20/20" on Friday that she wasn't even supposed to be on Flight 1380.

"I traded with the trip for my husband," she said, because she wanted to make it to her son's track meet. She said she coached his throwing event.

Shortly after the Boeing 737 took off from New York's LaGuardia airport, the left engine broke. Debris from the engine struck the body of the plane and cracked one window, which eventually broke open. The passenger in the seat next to that window was pulled partially out of the aircraft but was brought back in by other passengers. However, the passenger -- Jennifer Riordan, a 43-year-old Wells Fargo executive from Albuquerque, New Mexico -- did not survive.

Passenger Hollie Mackey told ABC she originally sat in Riordan's seat, but because she had drunk coffee and knew she was going to be getting up for the bathroom a lot, she switched to the aisle seat. She was one of the passengers, along with a teenage girl, who pulled Riordan back in.

"Regardless of us being safe, none of us were OK," she said.

The plane landed in Philadelphia and no other passengers were hurt. It was all because of what one passenger called Shults' "nerves of steel."

Pilot and first officer speak for first time

First Officer Darren Ellisor also spoke with ABC News about the incident.

"We were passing through about 32,000 feet when we had a large bang and a rapid decompression," he said. "The aircraft yawed and banked to the left, a little over ... 40 degrees, and we had a very severe vibration from the No. 1 engine that was shaking everything. And that all kind of happened all at once."

Shults said she and Ellisor used hand signals to communicate because of the noise level.

"Really, Darren is just very easy to communicate with. And we had to use hand signals because it was loud. And, there was, it was just hard to communicate for a lot of different reasons," she said. "There was a lot of pointing."

The full interview ran on ABC Friday evening.

Shults joined the Navy in 1985 and was one of its first female fighter pilots. She ultimately retired as a lieutenant commander with two Navy Marine Corps Achievement Medals and a National Defense Service Medal, according to records.

She told ABC that over her 25 years of flying for Southwest, she was often mistaken for a flight attendant. She also said some passengers would sometimes get off the plane she was flying because they didn't want a female pilot.

Her Navy experience and her ability to remain cool under pressure was evident in air traffic control audio from that day, as Shults spoke calmly and clearly about the emergency at hand.

"We have a part of the aircraft missing," she told air traffic control.

Shults and Ellisor, along with passengers and three members of the flight crew, visited the White House on May 1 and were honored by President Donald Trump.

"We all feel we were simply doing our jobs," they said in a statement posted on the airline's social media pages. "Our hearts are heavy. On behalf of the entire crew, we appreciate the outpouring of support from the public and our coworkers as we all reflect on one family's profound loss."

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