At 10:53 A.M. on April 17th, Southwest Airlines Flight 1380’s left engine exploded, sending shrapnel into the fuselage that would depressurize the cabin and instantly kill passenger Jennifer Riordan. Without missing a beat, Captain Tammie Jo Shults calmly piloted the damaged plane to the nearest runway, where she landed the Boeing 737 before it was flooded with emergency response crews who made sure the remaining 143 passengers and 5 crew members were safe.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation, the explosion was caused by an intake fan blade that broke loose from the shaft and tore through the CMF56-7B engine and the cabin, causing the depressurization and killing Jennifer Riordan. The investigation also revealed that the shearing occured because of metal fatigue on the inside of the blade, which was why the problem was not detected during the engine’s recent overhaul or the pre-flight check. As a result of this incident, mechanics everywhere are carefully checking intake blades on CMF56-7B engines with the same kind ultrasound scans that doctors use to check for problems inside humans.
Commercial airliners are designed to be able to fly on one engine in the event of an emergency. Pilots also undergo extensive training to prepare for these kinds of emergencies. However, neither airplane designers nor pilots prepare for an engine exploding, puncturing the cabin, and losing its protective cowling while the aerodynamic drag from the damage causes the plane to yaw uncontrollably. Captain Tammie Jo Shults didn’t need to prepare. She knew exactly what to do and she did it. Captain Shults, a former U.S. Navy pilot, was one of the first women to fly the F/A 18 fighter jet, not to mention one of the only female pilots in both the Navy and the commercial aviation industry. Captain Shults’s level-headedness and skill saved 148 lives on Tuesday. Her skill as a pilot is commendable, her value as a role model is admirable, and her place as a hero is incredible.