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Tammie Jo Shults Is A Hero Pilot, But Few Women Get That Chance To Fly

Northwest Airlines pilot Kathy McCullough in the cockpit.
Photo courtesy of Kathy McCullough
Northwest Airlines pilot Kathy McCullough in the cockpit.

From Texas Standard.

This week’s deadly Southwest Airlines incident marked the first passenger death in U.S. commercial aviation since 2009. A mother of two was killed when she was partially pulled from the plane by decompression forces after a window was shattered by shrapnel from an exploding engine.

But the terrible incident also brought attention to a woman who’s being hailed as a hero. Pilot Tammie Jo Shults not only landed the plane safely with just one engine, but did so with so much focus and calm that she even punctuated her emergency radio messages with the customary signoff: “good day.”

Kathy McCullough is a former captain for Northwest Airlines, the author of the book Ups and Downs, and a member of the International Society of Women Airline Pilots. She says she was thrilled to see a woman pilot celebrated as a hero, even though the circumstances were tragic.

“I was thrilled for a couple reasons,” she says. “One, because kids nowadays don’t identify women as being pilots, and having someone in the spotlight who’s a lady who does a great job just points out that it can happen and does happen and isn’t really that much of a surprise.”

Women have been flying planes for over 100 years, though some people still aren’t on board with the idea.

“I think one reason is they have the wrong impression that women don’t have the temperment for it,” McCullough says. “Because they think, ‘Oh, they’re going to cry in an emergency. They’re going to fall apart.’ And obviously we don’t. We handle families and airplanes and anything else that’s thrown at us. And I think a lot of it is misperception, but I think the other half is that we are still seeing a lot of harassment in this field. Men do not want women in their airplane.”

She says she encountered passengers who were uneasy with a woman pilot, too.

“You’d get a lot of surprised faces,” she says. “Especially in Japan. In the beginning, I was the fourth woman at Northwest. And some of the men in Japan would get off the plane when they found out there was a woman up there.”

In one instance, she even reassured Muhammad Ali that the flight would be safe.

“Muhammad Ali said, ‘Whoa, now I am scared. Are you flying this?’ and I said, ‘Don’t worry. There are two men up there. I’m sure they can take over,’” McCullough says.

McCullough says Tammie Jo Shults’ heroic landing is unlikely to change the number of women pilots.

“Most of my friends that are retired with me have been in the field 40 years. And we’re still at five percent,” she says. “Until we reach a tipping point, which is supposedly 20 percent, I don’t think we’ll see much in the way of a change.”

Written by Angela Bonilla.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Rhonda is the newest member of the KUT News team, joining in late 2013 as producer for KUT's new daily news program, The Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.