RogerBW's Blog

Nerves of Steel, Tammie Jo Shults 24 January 2021

2019 non-fiction. On 17 April 2018, the Boeing 737-7H4 registered N772SW suffered a catastrophic engine failure at 32,000 feet over Pennsylvania. Only one person died. This is the story of the captain's life.

Shults was a US Navy pilot before she flew commercially, in A-7s and A-6s and later in F/A-18s, and the repeated grinding message here is on multiple levels. First, of course, the blatant sexism she encountered, with some superiors taking every possible step in order to make her look bad, including explicitly lying about matters that were already on the record and trying to set her up to have fatal accidents; but second, and I think it's a thing Shults herself may not quite have worked out, that the real problem here is organisations with single channels of authority. If your direct military superior has it in for you, all you can do is appeal to that same military superior, who just ignores you… or, in practice, hope you made enough friends that informal channels can make up for the lack of a proper reporting system (which saved Shults's career several times both in the Navy and in commercial flying). Yes, I know, in an actual combat situation you want a single chain of command, but this tendency to believe the higher-status person even when there's directly contradictory evidence reminds me of why so much abuse in Catholic and American Evangelical communities has only lately been discovered.

The thing about the book that really grates for me, though, is Shults' approach to religion. She was evidently brainwashed into it at age twelve at a "church camp", falling for the usual "if this is so pretty how can it have happened by chance" argument, and at least as far as the book goes it seems to provide her entire life of the mind: if in doubt, think about God, if good things happen thank God (and never take any credit for your own skill), if bad things happen assume it's God's plan (though you can still fight them if you hear a voice in your head telling you to), and whatever happens read the Bible again and again. (She doesn't mention reading anything else apart from technical documents after she became a Christian, though in her youth she was fortunate enough to find a copy of West With the Night.) Shults was fortunate: she ended up in churches that actually allowed women to do things other than be seamstresses, brood mares and unpaid childminders. But when reading about someone who clearly has enough brain to learn a complicated technical job it's dispiriting, and somewhat frightening, to see that she has this large unquestioned evidence-free hole in her life.

Once you get past those things… the actual flying stuff is pretty good, particularly the incident that made Shults famous. The account differs in several ways from the version you'll get from other places, including what's been released of the cockpit voice recording, so that's worth bearing in mind. The flying is what I came for, and if the story of growing up poor on a ranch isn't terribly interesting, it does at least explain something of the person who got into the flying situations.

The excellent site Fear of Landing has a good technical description of the events (in two parts, and Wikipedia talks about the accident investigation – I suspect I'd love to read a book about that too, even knowing the answers.

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See also:
West with the Night, Beryl Markham


  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 03:56pm on 24 January 2021

    My various employers (8 by now) have almost always had only a single channel of authority. I have also had to rely on informal channels a couple of times to deal with bosses (or their bosses) that had it in for me. Companies claim there are separate channels you can use via HR, but this turns out to be just to make them look like they care about their employees. In practice HR just ask your manager and side with them. I've seen good employees lose their jobs just because they didn't get on with their manager or said manager had a totally unrealistic expectation of the work (in one case I had to pick up the work so I know exactly what was involved). I don't know what the answer is, it is not generally in the career interests of superiors to go against their peers and side with lower grade employees.

  2. Posted by Owen Smith at 06:39pm on 24 January 2021

    Regarding the passenger sucked half out of the window despite wearing her seat belt. I have long regarded aircraft seat belts as grossly inadequate given they are just lap belts so do no restrain the upper body. Surely 3 point inertia reel seat belts like in cars and some coaches would be a considerable improvement? They would also stop people who currently wear the lap belts far too slack risking submarining out of the belt in a crash. Obviously we'll never know if a 3 point seat belt would have saved this passenger's life, but it seems plausible given it would have been restraining the upper torso.

    Abroad on coaches it is easy to spot fellow brits among mainland europeans, we're the only ones wearing the seat belts. Talking to a few of them confirms this. Norway is the only other country where I've seen decent compliance to seat belt wearing on coaches by the locals.

  3. Posted by John P at 11:14pm on 24 January 2021

    The wikipedia article says the plane was repaired and then sent into storage at Victorville, where it has been ever since. Google Maps shows the "Southern California Logistics Airport" and there are lots of planes in Southwest Airlines markings scattered about there. It must be one of those.

    A few clicks to the west is "Grey Butte Field Airport" which has a building labelled as "General Atomics Aeronautical", who are the outfit who make UAV's for the US military. And sure enough, it looks like they've left one parked up on the tarmac.

  4. Posted by J Michael Cule at 12:15pm on 26 January 2021

    I happily wear a seat belt on those occasions when the commercial organisations have provided one that will fit a very fat fellow like me.

    Too damned often even taxis feel this is an area where they can cut a few corners. Or maybe this is another area where statistics say I don't exist.

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