Southwest Flight 1380 pilot Tammie Jo Shults on leading in times of crisis

When Captain Tammie Jo Shults entered the cockpit of Southwest Flight 1380 in April, she couldn’t have known an in-flight engine explosion would require her to complete a feat of aviation to bring the plane safely to the ground. But she was in the right place at the right time, successfully landing the damaged plane with grace under extreme pressure.

On a flight from New York’s LaGuardia airport to Dallas, one of the plane’s engines exploded, fatally injuring passenger Jennifer Riordan. Despite the damage to the plane, Shults and the crew guided the aircraft and its passengers to safety.

“A good captain is a captain who listens."

Captain Tammie Jo Shults

In her first speaking appearance since piloting the flight, Captain Shults shared her story with those gathered at the NRF PROTECT loss prevention conference in Dallas in a session called “Leading in Uncertain Times.”

Shults credits preparation, teamwork and trust for the successful landing. Other than trading flights with her husband, also a captain, her day began like any other, greeting and getting to know the names of her crew. And that, Shults said, is important.

Connection and trust within a team is essential. While Shults and co-pilot Darren Ellisor were managing the flight, flight attendants were communicating the situation in the cabin and helping keep passengers calm. Shults said she changed plans several times based on information the crew provided. “A good captain is a captain who listens,” she said. “Flexibility is survivability.”

Throughout her story, Shults emphasized that creating good habits and embodying servant leadership on an everyday basis serves people well in difficult times.

"If it’s a habit for you to do it in your everyday management, then it will be a practice for you to do it in crisis."

Captain Tammie Jo Shults

“You play like you practice. If it’s a habit for you to do it in your everyday management, then it will be a practice for you to do it in crisis,” Shults said.

“Serving our people by knowing them, trusting them and by valuing them — that’s what pulls us through a crisis.”

Divine intervention might help too: While Shults and her co-pilot landed the plane manually, an aviation school has since tried to replicate the landing on a simulator and has been unsuccessful in landing the plane without automation. “While we’re a good team, I really don’t think that we’re that good. We had help that day,” she said.

Things have changed a bit for Shults since the day of the flight. She launched to national celebrity as a hero for her efforts, and passengers now ask for her photograph in the airport. Life has changed in other ways as well — the loss of Riordan weighs on her, as with others there that day. “The survival of many will never eclipse the loss of one,” Shults said. “That will always lay heavy on my heart.”