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  • Shirley Phillips, DPT, Non-Profit Mentor

The Goose and the Gander

Dr. Phillips with her daughter

Caregivers are used to looking out for someone other than themselves. They have experience advocating for things that might not directly affect them. The aviation industry needs the perspective that caregivers bring because although airplanes are blind to gender, the people who make the decisions about who gets to fly them are not.

We all know about the flying career of Sully Sullenberger after his ditching on the Hudson due to losing a battle for the same airspace to some geese,

But what do you know about the career of Tammie Jo Shults?

She successfully landed her Boeing 737 after a catastrophic engine failure and a rapid depressurization. Not to take anything away from Captain Sullenberger and his often forgotten first officer, Jeffrey Skiles, but the situation Shults faced was arguably equally challenging.

Shults had to contend with the painful effects of a loss of pressurization, and she had to communicate initially with her first officer using hand signals because of the noise. Shults and crew also had to contend with a smoke-filled, shuddering airplane that was missing chunks from the leading edge of the wing and tail. Shults didn’t initially know what she was dealing with, unlike Sullenberger who could see the culprits that caused his engines to shut down automatically for him. Shults had to fly her airplane with the knowledge that passengers and crew were attempting to save the life of a woman that was partially sucked out of a window.

Although Sullenberger and crew faced the unenviable task of ditching in the Hudson, he was flying an Airbus that had been designed with some forethought given to the probability of a water landing; a ditching switch was installed to close up some holes used for ventilation and pressurization so that it could be more airtight in the event of a ditching. Clearly Airbus thought that the A320 might not break apart when it hit the water.

Shults already had a sizable hole in her airplane, and the possibility that it would get worse. Sullenberger had a predictable airplane on his hands, albeit one that was now a glider. Shults had to figure out how to keep her airplane from turning left now that the left engine was a hunk of debris.

Both pilots were rightfully commended for their skill and performance under pressure, but only Shults had to fight for her right to be on the flight deck in the first place. Southwest Airlines fired Shults after her first year at the airline based on a rumor about her past flying experience in the Navy that was untrue.

Had she not been successful in suing Southwest to get her job back, her aviation career might have ended because a few male pilots didn’t want to fly with a woman.

Sullenberger has been vocal about how the volatility of the airline industry negatively

impacted him, but only Shults had to endure flying with a captain who poured coffee on the dispatch paperwork, making her fish it out of the trash on every leg they flew together for a month. The fact that Sullenberger is a household name now, and had Tom Hanks play him in a movie, is not the issue although maybe it says something about how we treat those who fit the stereotype.

Sullenberger and Shults represent the best in commercial aviation, but only Shults had to deal with those who may be the worst.

Who better to call out bad behavior and discriminatory practices than the aviation professionals who keep us flying while caring for someone else? The skills already being employed by caregivers are ones the aviation industry needs because what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Shirley Phillips, Ph.D., is a Professor of Aeronautical Science at Southern New Hampshire University, Science Writer, Researcher and Airline Transport Rated Pilot/Instructor. She is an industry expert on human factors in aviation and is a published author.

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