Heroic pilot speaks at First Baptist Dallas: “Hope always changes us”

DALLAS Tammie Jo Shults, the Southwest Airlines captain who safely landed SW flight 1380 on April 17 after the plane’s left engine exploded, told the congregations of both Sunday morning services Oct. 21 at First Baptist Dallas that she wasn’t supposed to be flying that fateful day. It was not the only surprise she offered the church.

“I traded with my husband,” Shults, a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot and mother of two, said while interviewed on the First Dallas worship center stage by Pastor Robert Jeffress.

“And he is going to be hearing about that the rest of his life,” Jeffress noted with a smile.

“He calls it the gift that keeps on giving,” Shults said as the audience in both services laughed and applauded.

Asked to relate her faith background, Shults said she grew up in rural New Mexico and realized as a child that God was the creator: “seeing sunsets and moonrises and listening to bird songs, it doesn’t take long to realize we’re not sovereign, that somebody made this happen.”

Not until she was 13 did Shults trust Christ as Savior, when it “finally dawned” on her through a study of God’s Word at church camp that Jesus wasn’t demanding perfect behavior but offering love.

“I realized he only asked me to believe, not to behave, and that what he was asking me to believe was that he loved me: nothing weird, nothing strange, just that he loved me,” Shults said, adding that reading Scripture through God’s “lens of love” opened the Bible to her in an “amazing way.”

As for the event of April 17, Shults recalled that her first officer, Darren Ellisor, was flying the Boeing 737-700 as the plane passed 32,000 feet in altitude and the left engine blew, puncturing a window with shrapnel and causing a deafening and rapid depressurization.

The incident claimed the life of passenger Jennifer Riordan.

Shults asked the First Dallas congregation to think about the noise generated when one drives 60 mph with a window rolled down. “Well, at 500 mph, it’s a roar,” she said, explaining that she and Ellisor had to communicate with hand signals. Rapid depressurization sucks air out of the aircraft and people’s lungs, Shults said, describing a punctured balloon to illustrate her point.

She told the congregation that she preferred to focus on the “human element of courage” that surfaced during the ordeal, commending passengers like Peggy Phillips, Tim McGinty and Andrew Needham: “Everyone that day, very much, understood the value of human life and how every life is precious.”

(Editor’s note: Retired nurse Phillips, Tim McGinty and firefighter Needham all attempted to save Riordan, abandoning their oxygen masks, pulling her back into the plane and administering CPR.)

Shults observed that habits surface in times of crisis. “We are such creatures of habit that whatever we do on a normal day is what we will do on a crisis day,” she said. “So whatever you anchor your day to everyday is what you will anchor your day to on those crisis days.”

She offered praise for flight attendants Rachel Fernheimer, Kathryn Sandoval and Seanique Mallory, who calmed passengers and assisted them with oxygen masks.

Despite the noise, Shults said she managed to communicate with Mallory that the aircraft was “not going down” but instead “going to Philly.”

Mallory passed the reassuring news to her fellow flight attendants to share with passengers, whose anxiety subsided with the knowledge that they had a “destination.”

“It didn’t change the flight. It stayed as rough and loud as it had been. But just that information, that hope, changed the atmosphere,” Shults said, later adding that “hope always changes us even if it doesn’t change our circumstances.”

Quoting her mother’s saying, “God never wastes anything,” Shults revealed something at First Dallas she had never shared publicly before. On the way to LaGuardia airport that April day, she was talking to her mother on the phone. The national news that week had featured reports of women’s groups agitated over a policy.

“I just wish I had a microphone for five minutes,” Shults said she told her mom that day. “Be careful what you wish for,” she said, turning to the congregation.

“I would like so much to point the eyes of women my age, older, younger, to the fact that we have a champion. He is found in Scripture. Jesus was so counter culture in his time of pulling women out of the shadows, hallmarking their courage, highlighting their faith. We read about it now thousands of years later, the fact that we really do have a champion and it’s Jesus,” she said.

Following Shults’ remarks, Jeffress told her that two FBCD members—a mother and infant daughter—had been on flight 1380 that day. April Walker, her baby daughter and husband, Kyle, then walked out for a tearful reunion to thank Shults.

It was, as Ronald L. Harris, president of MEDIAlliance International, put it moments later onstage, an “amazing moment.”

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