Tammie Jo Shults, the pilot hailed as a hero for safely landing a Southwest Airlines plane after one of the jet's engines failed, is a "strong Christian lady" whose faith contributed to her calm state amid the emergency, according to friends and family.
The 56-year-old Shults, an ex-Navy pilot and one of the first women to fly the "Top Gun" F-18 Hornet, was forced to implement a rapid descent toward Philadelphia International Airport on Tuesday when one of the two engines on her Boeing 737-700 blew and broke apart at 32,000 feet.
The explosion, which sent shrapnel smashing through a window midflight, killed one passenger and injured several others. However, many say the damage would have been much worse had it not been for Shults' calm and professionalism during the emergency landing.
"Most of us, when that engine blew, I think we were pretty much going, 'Well, this just might be it,'" said passenger Peggy Phillips, from Brandon, Texas. "To get us down with no hydraulics and a blown engine and land us safely is nothing short of miraculous to me. She's a hero, for sure."
A Christian who is married to a fellow pilot and has two children, Shults was once quoted as saying that sitting in the captain's chair gave her "the opportunity to witness for Christ on almost every flight."
Speaking to The Washington Post, Shults' mother-in-law said the pilot's faith gave her peace and wisdom during the frightening situation.
"I know God was with her, and I know she was talking to God," Virginia Shults said.
Sandy Green, Shults' neighbor, told Dallas News the pilot's heroism didn't surprise her.
"She's a strong Christian lady," she said. "She's a very confident person. She was doing her job. ... I'm so happy she was able to land safely, for all those people. So proud she was able to do her job."
On social media, many of the 144 passengers who survived the harrowing flight sang Shults' praises, crediting the pilot's quick-thinking and divine intervention for the safe landing.
"The pilot Tammy Jo was so amazing! She landed us safely in Philly," said Amanda Bourman on Instagram. "God sent his angels to watch over us."
Passenger Alfred Tumlinson told The Associated Press: "She has nerves of steel. That lady, I applaud her. I'm going to send her a Christmas card — I'm going to tell you that — with a gift certificate for getting me on the ground. She was awesome."
Another passenger, Diana McBride Self, thanked Shults on Facebook for her "guidance and bravery in a traumatic situation," adding that the pilot "came back to speak to each of us personally."
"This is a true American Hero," McBride wrote. "God bless her and all the crew."
Others compared Shults to Chelsey 'Sully' Sullenberger, the pilot who in 2009 successfully landed a stricken US Airways passenger jet on the Hudson River. His story was later turned into a film starring Tom Hanks.
Gary Shults, her brother-in-law, described her to the AP as a "formidable woman, as sharp as a tack."
"My brother says she's the best pilot he knows," Gary Shults said. "She's a very caring, giving person who takes care of lots of people."