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Meet The Southwest Pilot Who Landed A Plane After An Engine Exploded


We're learning more today about the Southwest plane that had an emergency landing in Philadelphia yesterday after one of its engines disintegrated. It was a dramatic incident, as parts of the engine flew into the fuselage and blew out a window. One passenger died. Today people who were on board praised the captain and her flight crew. Here's passenger Joe Marcus speaking on MSNBC.


JOE MARCUS: Totally cool. Didn't say one word. Just did her business. And then as soon as we landed, she came out and made sure everyone was OK, hugged everyone and said, all right, let's get on another flight. Let's do it.

CHANG: The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, and we're joined now by NPR's Russell Lewis. Hi, Russell.


CHANG: So what new information are we learning about the investigation?

LEWIS: Well, you know, it's still very early. I mean, let's remember that aircraft accidents often take 12 or 15 months to complete. There's a lot to study. There's a lot to understand, a lot of systems to troubleshoot. But we are getting some new details today. From the time that the engine failed to when it landed was 22 minutes. When that engine failed, the NTSB said late today, that the aircraft went into a rapid and uncontrolled bank of 41 degrees. You know, typically a commercial plane will only make 20 or 25 degrees. But really for now the investigation is really focusing on that left engine.

CHANG: So how does this fit in with what else is known at this point?

LEWIS: Well, you know, these engines really are incredibly reliable. They're incredibly safe. But one of the fan blades in that engine, it separated. And investigators say it was because of metal fatigue. And, I mean, that's really worrisome because there was a similar accident that also happened quite by happenstance on a Southwest jet in 2016. This particular engine was called a CFM56. It's, as I say, widely used. Experts say it has a great safety record.

But last year the FAA and the engine maker instructed airlines to inspect fan blades on engines like this one, and it was because of a fan blade that had failed and hurled debris, like what happened yesterday. The NTSB today said they're not sure if the engine from yesterday was one of those that was required to have that inspection, but regardless, Southwest has said that it is expediting its inspections, and other airlines that fly these engines are following suit. WestJet, which is based in Canada, announced today that it's also accelerating its inspections of these engines.

CHANG: The passengers onboard obviously said that this was a pretty terrifying experience. How do pilots handle something like this?

LEWIS: Well, really, you know, this is what every pilot trains for. You know, you practice for these emergencies so that, you know, when they happen, you know what to do. And you can often sort of hear it here. I mean, here's the pilot, Tammie Jo Shults. She's talking to air traffic control in the middle of it all yesterday.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Your passengers are OK. And are you - is your airplane physically on fire?

TAMMIE JO SHULTS: No. It's not on fire, but part of it's missing. They said there's a hole and someone went out.

CHANG: Wow. She sounds so relaxed and calm.

LEWIS: Yeah. I mean, she really is. You know, she's very cool there, as you can hear. Of course, that person going out was a passenger that had sort of went out that broken-out window but was pulled back in by other passengers. But as we say, you know, as part of a commercial pilot's training, they're required to fly in simulators regularly practicing all sorts of breakdowns, incidents and emergencies like this one.

CHANG: Tell us what you've learned about the flight crew so far.

LEWIS: Well, the captain we're learning more about. Her name is Tammie Jo Shults. You know, she's calm, she's cool, she's collected. And some of that really is probably because of her background. You know, she's a former Navy pilot. In fact, she was one of the very first female fighter pilots to ever fly for the service. She had to fight her way into the ego-driven and male-dominated arena. You know, she ended up - she joined in 1985. She reached the rank of lieutenant commander. She was an instructor pilot who flew on the EA-6B Prowler in the F/A-18. And, you know, she used to land on aircraft carriers. So, you know, she was a really cool customer, but one great pilot.

CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Russell Lewis. Thank you very much.

LEWIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.
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