Tammie Jo Shults was a hero long before she saved lives of 148 people

Rebecca Nicholson
Tammie Jo Shults in 1992 was one of the earliest female fighter pilots in the US Navy. Photograph: HANDOUT/Reuters

After one of its engines appeared to explode in midair, a flight from New York to Dallas ended terribly and tragically with the death of a passenger, Jennifer Riordan, who had been partially sucked out of a broken window. The horror is unimaginable.

It’s the nightmarish worst-case scenario that is never supposed to happen, the stuff of disaster movies, not real life. But the pilot of Southwest Airlines flight 1380, Captain Tammie Jo Shults, landed the plane calmly and successfully, on just one engine, at a Philadelphia airport, saving the lives of 148 people. Riordan’s death was awful; the fact that the incident wasn’t even more deadly was extraordinary.

When Captain Chesley Sullenberger brought US Airways Flight 1549 down on to the Hudson river in 2009, after geese took out both engines, he was lauded as a hero. Tom Hanks played him in a Clint Eastwood-directed biopic, Sully, which seems about as all-American an endorsement of courage and bravery as it’s possible to get. Sully offered his approval of Shults last week, and of the teamwork of the flight crew that saved so many lives, although cautioned that, in his experience, the trauma would long outlast any fuss or attention.

Those present recalled that after the plane had landed, Shults walked through the aisle to talk to them, to see how they were doing. One passenger, Alfred Tumlinson, told reporters that he would send the pilot “a Christmas card, I’m going to tell you that, with a gift certificate for getting me on the ground. She was awesome.” News outlets have delved into her life story and it has turned out to be astonishing. Shults was one of the first female fighter pilots in the US Navy and was elite enough to fly an F/A-18 Hornet. She flew training missions as an “enemy pilot” during Operation Desert Storm, as women were then still excluded from combat missions.

A Navy spokesman, Commander Ron Flanders, explained to Time magazine that she helped “male pilots hone their skills”. She left active duty just before restrictions on female pilots entering combat were lifted. If Julia Roberts isn’t already on the phone, I’d be amazed.

When reading about flight 1380, any references to Shults’s gender have seemed to me to be entirely beside the point. When reports have described her as “a female pilot”, I have winced a little, instinctively. It’s the muscle memory that accompanies phrases such as “female comedian” or “female doctor”. She’s a pilot. That’s it. But equally, to learn about her past, in which being a woman made it harder for her to do what she did, makes it worth just a moment of added recognition of her incredible life and career.

• Rebecca Nicholson is an Observer columnist