Tammie Jo Shults, the hero pilot who navigated Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 to safety when one of its engines blew out, sat down with ABC News’ 20/20 to talk about the harrowing day that led to the shocking death of a 43-year-old mother of two.
About 20 minutes after Flight 1380 left La Guardia Airport to Dallas on April 17, the aircraft’s left side engine exploded, sending shrapnel and debris into the plane’s fuselage. With smoke billowing from the wing, Shults and her co-pilot, Darren Ellisor, had to act quickly to save the plane’s 149 passengers.
“My first thoughts were actually, ‘Oh, here we go’ — just because it seemed like a flashback to some of the Navy flying that we had done,” Shults, a former fighter pilot with the U.S. Navy, said in the 20/20 interview — her first since the terrifying ordeal. “But really, Darren is just very easy to communicate with and we had to use hand signals because it was loud and it was just hard to communicate for a lot of different reasons.”
Ellisor said he remembered the Boeing 737 banking to the left when the engine malfunctioned.
“We were passing through about 32,000 feet when we heard a large bang and a rapid decompression,” Ellisor told 20/20. “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. There was shaking, everything. And that all kinda happened all at once.”
Shults and Ellisor diverted the plane toward Philadelphia to make an emergency landing.
“Your instincts kick in, you know, stuff that you’ve prepared for, you know, ever since you started flying … and this training just takes over,” Ellisor, 56, told 20/20. “Was there some of that fear? There probably was deep down, but I, you know, pushed it away.”
As they prepared to bring the aircraft down, panicked passengers in the plane’s cabin were hastily placed on their oxygen masks and made last-ditch attempts to contact loved ones. But in row 14, University of Oklahoma professor Hollie Mackey was desperately trying to hold on to her seatmate, Jennifer Riordan, who was sucked halfway outside of the plane after engine debris shattered the window next to her.
Mackey told PEOPLE that all that was keeping Riordan — a mother of two and bank executive from Albuquerque, New Mexico — from being completely sucked outside, was her seatbelt.
Despite how much she tried, Mackey was unable to pull Riordan back in, and the upper-half of her body remained outside for an estimated five to 10 minutes before Shults and Ellisor were able to descend the aircraft, which lessened the pull on Riordan and allowed two men to retrieve her from the window.
Once inside, a retired nurse named Peggy Phillips performed CPR on Riordan until the two pilots were able to land the plane in Philadelphia about 20 minutes after the explosion.
“I didn’t know yet that she’d been sucked out of the plane,” Phillips said. “I just shut everything else out and started giving compressions trying to open an airway.”
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“Darren handled it beautifully and not trying to force the aircraft to stay on altitude and return to that heading, which is kind of a normal pilot reaction, or can be to get back on course,” Shults said. “He followed the aircraft and let it stay in a nice controlled flight status. And it was a bit of a rough shudder until we slowed it down a little bit.”
Shults said that she and Ellisor flew the plane differently since one of the windows was shattered.
“Obviously, that would mean that the passengers some fast air going through the cabin,” she explained, “so, you know, we just did our best to make it a descent without the high airspeed.”
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After the successful landing, Riordan was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead.
The Philadelphia Department of Public Health announced Riordan’s death was caused by blunt impact trauma to her head, neck and torso.
The NTSB believes metal fatigue on the 18-year-old Boeing 737 led to one of the engine’s blade breaking mid-flight, sending shrapnel into the plane’s fuselage and breaking the window next to Riordan.
Shults revealed that the crew sent a card to Riordan’s widow in the weeks that followed.
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“Hearing some of the things that her husband has said subsequently that just makes us think what a sweet and rich family they are,” said Shults. “We wanted to be respectful and let them have some time to mourn without us being public.”
Shults also revealed that her husband, Dean, was originally supposed to be the captain on Flight 1380, but the couple switched flights so she could make it to their son’s track meet.
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“I’m not trading with him anymore,” Shults said, laughing.
As for whether Shults and Ellisor feel comfortable flying Boeing 737’s, the captain said, “Absolutely. It’s definitely something we’ll do until our kids take the keys away from us.”
After the terrifying day, the two now say their friendship is stronger than ever.
“Going through something like this, it certainly galvanizes your personalities together and your friendship,” Shults said. “I mean, we’ll be in touch the rest of our lives. Even though he’s going to upgrade and be captain.”