The Mantle Of Heroism

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About a month after Chesley B. Sullenberger had ascended into sainthood after his skillful 2009 ditching of US Airways 1549 into the Hudson River, a network reporter took a few moments to ask him in depth what he thought about the mantle of heroism that had been thrust upon him. His response was memorable. He said he understood why people wanted and needed heroes and if he had to play the role for his moment in history, he’d do so without complaint. 

Tammie Jo Shults, batter up. Like Sullenberger, Shults was confronted with a serious inflight emergency when an engine on the 737 she was flying essentially disintegrated. Unlike Sullenberger, she and First Officer Darren Ellisor at least had thrust from one good engine. They handled the emergency ably and professionally.

But the narrative has extra richness this time because of Shults’ gender and the fact that she was one of the first women to enter the cloistered world of the military fighter community. I’ve seen reports that she was turned down by the Air Force before being accepted for flight training by the Navy. I don’t know if this is true as reported, but I’m sure you can see how the script just about writes itself.

Predictably, all of this is catnip to the working press. The headline writers couldn’t resist using a passenger quote about Shults having “nerves of steel.” Most of us in aviation will have the same reaction to that, I’m sure. Just once, I’d like to see a headline that says “Engine Explodes, Pilot Reduced to Whimpering Panic as Passengers Land Jet.” Well of course she remained calm. Would we expect anything less? Calm helps sort through the emergency checklist and the decision tree, just as the training doctrine requires. We sometimes forget—or maybe headline writers do—that the pilots are always the first to the scene of the accident so in addition to the duty of care they feel professionally for passengers, they have a certain self-interest. And besides, screaming and panic sound really bad on the tape.

It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to know that a parallel story hook in these reports is that it is somehow remarkable that a woman was involved in resolving this emergency, but my reaction is the same. Why would we possibly expect anything less? Or if it is remarkable, it’s only because of the rarity of such an event itself in a universe where airline accidents have effectively become zero or perhaps because Shults was among a small handful of women who broke into the boy’s club, thus paving the way for others to follow. I will admit to being an unreconstructed dinosaur here; a genuine 1970s Germaine Greer feminist. I put a period on this sentence decades ago and accepted at face value the declaration that women could do any job that men can. I haven’t changed that view, although I recognize that many still don’t embrace it. 

If the outcome of this emergency serves as a touch point for recruiting women into the cockpit or science or technology, fine by me, although personally, I am not necessarily animated in that direction. The most compelling argument for more women in such workplaces is to help remove what barriers remain for women in general, while at the same time acknowledging that for generational and cultural reasons not related to bias, they may not be interested in such professions. Call me naive, but I’d just like to stop discussing innate ability.

Here a word on the dark side of this emergency. A passenger died as the result of a cabin breach. In the midst of the adulation for an emergency well handled, spare a thought for the family of the deceased and for the trauma any professional airline crew feels at losing a passenger whose life it is their duty to protect. Rightly or not, the captain gets most of the attention in such events because it fits the easy-to-read narrative. But I think I’m on safe ground here predicting that when Shults gets her Sullenberger moment, she will deflect the praise toward her First Officer and, especially, the cabin crew. They had to deal with the emergency firsthand and, rising to the occasion, proved once again that flight attendants aren’t there just to serve drinks, but to save lives and salve the terrified. For them and for Shults and Ellisor, there is no need to write a hagiography, but merely to acknowledge duties performed professionally under duress. Just as we shouldn’t expect any less, I suspect they don’t expect any more.

Comments (32)

I couldn't agree more Paul. I make no distinction whether man or woman. I see no difference in an airplane or anywhere for that matter. It's just not necessary, but, the media just can't resist. It's a big yawner as far as I can see. She did a great job as apparently did the rest of the crew. It's really nice when things go the way they're planned. My hat is off for the entire crew. Nice job. And yes, unfortunately there was loss of someone's life. Thankfully there were not more. The family of the deceased must remain factored in and not vaporize because a woman was at the controls when the wheels touched down. Again, to the entire crew, nice job.

Posted by: Tom Cooke | April 19, 2018 6:41 AM    Report this comment

Listening to the 10 minute ATC tape, I'da told the first controller to shut up and clear the airspace around me and stop asking repeat questions. I never heard her declare an emergency or even Pan Pan Pan on what I heard. Maybe that was the problem? Toward the end, she did tell a controller to stop switching her to different frequencies. I was not impressed by the first controller in the evolution.

I'm never gonna sit next to a window again.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 19, 2018 6:52 AM    Report this comment

I have to admit Larry, I was a little startled by the way the controller's handled the event even to the point of not being sure which runway, R or L to land on. I think she already got the idea that she could pretty much ask ATC for anything she wanted and didn't have to be repeatedly reminded.

Posted by: Tom Cooke | April 19, 2018 7:04 AM    Report this comment

I just had an email with the guy who taught me to fly when dinosaurs still roamed the planet. He's a retired Captain and check airman and he, too, caught that she didn't declare an emergency. IF she did and we didn't hear it ... it makes the first controller's reactions even worse. But ... all's well that end's well ... except for that passenger ... so I guess that's where the rubber meets the runway.

If I were the Company Chief Pilot, I'd be asking why an IFE wasn't declared. There's gotta be more to this story?

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 19, 2018 7:24 AM    Report this comment

It's possible she did declare an emergency, but the first part was broken up, presumably because the crew had their oxygen masks on. But the actual declaration of an emergency is immaterial here. It was clear that it was understood to be an emergency when the questions of number of souls on board and fuel remaining were being asked.

I once had an engine start running rough on climb-out (while on an IFR flight plan), and literally the last thing on my mind was to declare an emergency. It was more important to do the aviate and navigate and try to determine if I was going to lose the engine or if there was anything I could do to smooth it out. I did of course tell the controller that I was turning back to the airport though, and that I had a rough-running engine. The controller understood this to mean it was an emergency and handled it appropriately. Now had the controller chastised me about turning back and/or refused any of my requests, I absolutely would have declared, but since none of that happened it was totally unnecessary. Same in this case: the crew got what they needed, when they needed it.

As far as gender goes, the pilot's story of getting through the military to fly is more impressive than the mere fact that she is female and did the job we expect of all professional pilots. I also get the impression that inside the aviation community, there's less "wow, she's a woman!" than there is in the general populace.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | April 19, 2018 8:20 AM    Report this comment

It's so old. The term "Hero" is so watered down. Simply doing your job, especially when you have no alternative is no Hero in my definition. Just say thank you (to Southwest for hiring standards and good training, for Boeing and the engine manufacturers for great safety designs and to the FAA for certification standards that save lives), job well done!

Posted by: greg wyatt | April 19, 2018 8:39 AM    Report this comment

Regarding the apparent lack of a declaration, perhaps the flight crew did re-set their active transponder to 7700. Just a thought...

Another thought: are we ready to admit that the assertion that catastrophic debris-release failures of modern jet engines will be "contained" is... absurd? There have been (too?) many recent examples in which it appears that good old DSL - wherein the debris escapes via the five-sixths-or-so of trajectories that don't extend through the fuselage - is the only reason that (until now) there had been no fatalities associated with such events. We may want to re-think our algorithms for determining when blisk methodology is "economically disadvantageous." Similarly, we might want to consider fuselage cross-sections that are more resistant to debris penetration in susceptible areas (for composite structures, anyways), and we might want to consider locating galleys (instead of passenger seats) at such locations. Just sayin...

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | April 19, 2018 10:38 AM    Report this comment

Avate, Navigate ... Communicate. First two out of three meet the need.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 19, 2018 10:44 AM    Report this comment

What's more.

Air Traffic Controllers Handbook
c. If the words "Mayday" or "Pan-Pan" are not used and you are in doubt that a situation constitutes an emergency or potential emergency, handle it as though it were an emergency.
d. Because of the infinite variety of possible emergency situations, specific procedures cannot be prescribed. However, when you believe an emergency exists or is imminent, select and pursue a course of action which appears to be most appropriate under the circumstances and which most nearly conforms to the instructions in this manual.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 19, 2018 11:10 AM    Report this comment

Call me naive, but I'd just like to stop discussing innate ability."

Me too, but if 80.5 cents to the male dollar is a reality for Capt. Shults, then we're still avoiding the elephant. I don't know airline pay scales, but male praise for a job well done would be dishonest (to the men) if pay is not equal.

Posted by: Dave Miller | April 19, 2018 11:21 AM    Report this comment

Very good gouge train in this blog !! (Navy slang).

Now we have a USAF 'hero' and a Navy 'hero' and a female 'hero' ... wonder what group is next up to the plate?

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 19, 2018 11:37 AM    Report this comment

don't controllers usually ask and confirm if the pilot is declaring an emergency?
this pilot did her job as she was trained to do.
its always one thing to train for emergencies
and quite another to experience one.
she is a hero to me.
are the genders equal?
I always tell people that
men will never equal women

Posted by: David Ahrens | April 19, 2018 12:00 PM    Report this comment

I'm not sure I'd make much of the lack of a formal emergency declaration. It was clearly being handled as one and I'm reluctant to second guess any pilot, much less an experienced airline captain. I do wonder why we persist in pestering the crew with the irrelevant souls on board and fuel in pounds. To what purpose?

That needs a revision. In a world strung together with data, get that %$#^ from the company.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 19, 2018 12:06 PM    Report this comment

"don't controllers usually ask and confirm if the pilot is declaring an emergency?"

Not always, no. I speak from experience having had a controller handle my situation as an emergency without me declaring, and without them having asked me if it was an emergency. I know it was treated as an emergency when they started asking for souls on board. The firetrucks waiting for me upon landing and the call from the FAA inspector the next day was also a clue (he just wanted to know a summary of what happened and if I was going to have the plane checked out by a mechanic, and ended the call by saying he'd close the case).

"I do wonder why we persist in pestering the crew with the irrelevant souls on board and fuel in pounds. To what purpose?"

To annoy the pilot? That's a good question. In my emergency (rough engine, still producing power) I was asked for fuel and I gave it in either time or gallons (I don't remember which). I was then asked "how much in pounds". Uh, I dunno, about 40 gallons x 6lbs/, I'm trying to get back to the airport in one piece, I don't have time to do the math. about 300? you figure it out! (at least, that was my thought process - my actual reply was something like "um...standby" - I think I did eventually do the math for them, but only because I determined I was going to make it back to the airport and everything was all stabilized)

Posted by: Gary Baluha | April 19, 2018 12:35 PM    Report this comment

"I do wonder why we persist in pestering the crew with the irrelevant souls on board and fuel in pounds. To what purpose?"

I think that's so they can guesstimate the size of the fire and how many ambulances to roll (cue the old joke about the 2-seat trainer crashing in a cemetery...).

The fuel question may be also for non-engine-out emergencies, i.e. how long can this plane remain aloft? Do we have time to get a mechanic/CFI/etc. on the radio to help sort through the problem?

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | April 19, 2018 12:56 PM    Report this comment

I would not deflate anyone's performance under stress. Bravery is focusing on solving the problem then shitting in your pants.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 19, 2018 1:01 PM    Report this comment

"The fuel question may be also for non-engine-out emergencies, i.e. how long can this plane remain aloft?"

Then why ask for fuel in pounds?

Posted by: Gary Baluha | April 19, 2018 2:06 PM    Report this comment

I have developed a little saying concerning leadership positions: I will get the blame if it fails, so I might as well accept the accolades when successful.

The same is true of our captain in this situation. She, and the entire crew, did their jobs well and as they had been trained to do. She should, as any good leader would, give credit to her team, but the accolades will be hers. It is hard for the public to focus on a "team of heros", it kind of defies our vision of one person taking on the world, so like Sully, she will have her 15 minutes of fame, so let her enjoy it.

I heard United Captain Haines (sp?) speak years ago regarding the crash landing of his DC-10 in which all the hydraulics were lost (another uncontained engine failure), and he told a fantastic story of crew coordination and selfless delegation of action to give those folks even a fighting chance to get to an airport and on the ground. He gets the credit, and his leadership set the standard for success, but he was always mindful of giving everyone credit who worked so hard in the cockpit. The public speaking engagements helped him deal with the lost lives. I trust Captain Shults will likewise give her crew the credit they are due.

Posted by: Gary Risley | April 19, 2018 3:55 PM    Report this comment

"Then why ask for fuel in pounds?"

I'm guessing because it's a more universal measure. Even if you measure tanks and consumption in gallons, everybody still has to figure pounds for weight and balance purposes. So, to simplify the questions in an emergency they chose one unit of measure. But that's just a guess. It'd be a good question for an "Ask the FAA" column.

That being said, in an emergency I'll say what I can, given the circumstances.

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | April 19, 2018 4:13 PM    Report this comment

I always assumed the "souls on board" & fuel questions simply relate to whether you call local EMS or scream for everything including the National Guard.

On the hero thing: I don't want to take anything away from anyone who performs well, nor do I discount Paul's observation that we need "heros" to tout as examples in a society where poor performance and neglect of responsibility is endemic. On the other hand, no question the term has been devalued far below it's original connotation of someone who risks all for others when under no hard obligation to do so. Maybe we need a new word.

Posted by: John Wilson | April 19, 2018 5:20 PM    Report this comment

I hope this and other recent incidents puts an end to a) airlines trying to further reduce the number of pilots in the cockpit and b) trying to convince the world that pilotless airliners are inevitable. Well trained, and well compensated, professionals in control of a mass transportation vehicle will always be needed. A few days ago Elon Musk, while discussing why too much automation on his assembly line for the Model 3 was actually making things worse, said that people are underrated.
I heartily agree.

Posted by: James Freal | April 19, 2018 5:40 PM    Report this comment

Great job Captain, First officer and unrecognized cabin crew. Based on the few comments from the crew they don't regard themselves as heroes. They were doing the job they are trained and paid to do. They are not heroes. That word is thrown around so much it is now meaningless. If an airline captain and first officer can't land an airliner with one perfectly good engine they shouldn't be sitting up front. There may have been some heroes in the back of the plane trying to save the badly injured pax

Posted by: KAREN ABNEY | April 19, 2018 9:38 PM    Report this comment

. "Maybe we need a new word." Just a tweak of the word itself to show the degree of heroism


Posted by: Richard Montague | April 20, 2018 7:05 AM    Report this comment

Tammie Is a skillful lead pilot with bravery, courage, valor, intrepidity, boldness, daring, audacity, fearlessness, dauntlessness, pluck, stout-heartedness, lionheartedness; backbone, spine, grit, spirit, mettle; gallantry, chivalry; informalguts, spunk, balls, cojones, moxie.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 20, 2018 9:04 AM    Report this comment

After listening to the ATC tapes, what amazed me was Capt. Shults coolness; not a trace of stress in her voice, even when describing the horrific damage and (and yet unknown extent) of the aircraft and passengers condition. It's really worth listening to if you haven't yet. Wow, what a pro.

Yars, if you look at the external damage, the affected window was not in the rotary plane of the compressor blades but actually just aft of the wing trailing edge. I suspect it was broken by trailing debris; of what sort, who knows. But, there was a Delta DC-9 incident in Pensacola on the taxiway some years ago where the departing compressor blades did penetrate the fuselage with fatalities. Today, I think about that every time I ride in the back rows of an MD-88 or -90. Humbling.

And finally, I have a really hard time believing this myself, but both the incidents you mention Paul have a personal connection. My brother-in-law was on Sully's flight into the Hudson, and my sister-in-law's close friend and former co-worker was the woman tragically lost on this most recent flight. These are real people, not just statistics.

Posted by: A Richie | April 20, 2018 10:15 AM    Report this comment

I am tired of the press hailing pilots as heroes for doing the job they are trained for, well compensated for, and have to demonstrate to authorities on a regular basis. A pilot landing a plane after an engine failure is what is expected of them and if they can't do it, they have no business in the cockpit of a passenger airliner in the first place. Pilots are expected to do more than fly straight and level with all systems operating normally.

IMO, a "hero" in this case would have been a passenger who realized what had happened, moved to the cockpit, busted down the armored door, moved the incapacitated crew members from the cockpit and then recovered and landed the plane, all without any significant piloting experience.

Posted by: Stefan Sobol | April 20, 2018 2:04 PM    Report this comment

Hello Paul,
thanks for a balanced comment for a well done handling of a multiple failure scenario by a proficient and calm crew.
if you look at FAA AC 120-42B p29
"At the approved one-engine inoperative cruise speed assuming a rapid
decompression and a simultaneous engine failure at the most critical
point followed by descent to a safe altitude in compliance with the
oxygen supply requirements of S 121.333,

This scenario is more or less followed by LOFTs of various ETOPS airlines (most probably at least several hundred times), that means there is no substantial "startled effect"- it is known that one aspect of ETOPS authorization and approval is linked to a crew training that addresses this multiple failure i.e. decompression + engine failure .
Experiencing this scenario in a well functioning USA-ATC environment keeps your pulse rate manageable down.
Not to playing down the excellent work the 1380 crew did- but in my opinion you cannot compare this to Hudson River.
Sullenbergers crew had not been trained to a failure like this and regarding the time they had was much much more stressed.
Cheers from Germany
A.J."Toni" Beidl rtd PiC B737, A300/310, B744, EASA TRI, TRE
PS: for your info -no need to publish it
Hope you enjoy AERO 2018

Posted by: Anton Beidl | April 20, 2018 3:49 PM    Report this comment

Agreed--kind of. Pilots do train for almost any conceivable emergency--including single-engine ops and loss of cabin pressure. Give the Captain her due for handling the event capably and calmly--the voice tape showed remarkable composure--but unlike Sullenberger, she wasn't faced with a difficult decision or operation for which she had not been trained.

If there are "unsung heroes"--those the news media haven't recognized--it is the cabin crew and passengers. Imagine the bedlam of loss of cabin pressure--passengers injured, masks dropping, the aircraft pitching over, and a passenger halfway out of the aircraft. The cabin crew handled the emergency well--yet we haven't heard much about them. The REAL heroes were those that unbuckled their seat belts and pulled the passenger back inside the aircraft. Unlike the flight deck crew, they were at risk of their lives--and had no idea how much risk there was to the aircraft or what would come next--yet they did what they had to do anyway. THOSE are the heroes.

Posted by: jim hanson | April 20, 2018 3:54 PM    Report this comment

For clarification, my comment was in response to Stefan--Anton posted while I was writing--and covered many of my points as well.

Posted by: jim hanson | April 20, 2018 3:58 PM    Report this comment

Maybe we're accustomed to ATC's doing its job, but I was impressed with ATC's smooth transition from normal operations to emergency. They dealt with an airplane that needed to get from the flight levels to the deck in a hurry - blasting through many cubic miles of airspace without much warning. This meant quick coordination between center's high and low altitude sectors and a handoff to PHL approach with what can only be described as "unanticipated routing" and the need for an extended final. Did ATC handle the situation smoothly? Of course they did, but that's what we've come to expect. I wonder whether the controllers get realistic simulator practice on emergencies of this nature as frequently as the pilots do.

Posted by: C HULL | April 20, 2018 8:55 PM    Report this comment

I did see a vlog by a 737 captain who said they are trained for an engine failure, and they are trained for a rapid decompression, but not the two together. So this captain and FO had two memory checklists going on, had to decide what action to take in what order, and still get everything on both lists done.

Adaptability under tremendous stress was a hallmark of this crew's efforts. I do not believe that any of us should minimize the extraordinary job this crew did. Yes, the press overblows it, yes, we may need to look for other adjectives to described their efforts, but this was not an event for which they routinely trained. Absent good training, absent a crew that took its responsibilities to learn their aircraft seriously, and absent flight officers who still had their piloting skills, this outcome could have been much worse.

Applause is due for a job well-done,a hearty pat-on-the-back, and praise from the aviation community is due no matter the adjective we would use to describe it.

Posted by: Gary Risley | April 20, 2018 9:02 PM    Report this comment

Their actions are inspirational. The essence of heroism. Makes us all try to excel.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 20, 2018 9:15 PM    Report this comment

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