Every so often, an emergency happens in aviation. 17. April 2018 was one such day. The left engine on Southwest flight 1380 failed. Shrapnel escaped from the engine, damaged the airplane, and broke a window. Sadly, that killed one of the passengers on board. And then news filled with phrases like “heroic pilot” and “nerves of steel”, framing the story around one person who performed well that day.

I am an amateur pilot. One of the habits of many pilots is to read about aviation accidents. From this we learn about what went wrong for others, so that we can do better when things go wrong for us. Like many who know aviation, I would like to suggest a different frame. It’s not about “a” pilot. It’s about a wide range of people: a crew of five people on that Southwest Airlines flight, Air Traffic Controllers, and more. It’s not about “heroic” deeds or “nerves of steel”, it’s about well-trained, competent people, thrust into a stressful situation for which they trained, performing their training well. And while these people are admirable, so are their peers.

A good place to start experiencing what went right that day is to listen to the radio communications between the two pilots (not just one) of Southwest Flight 1380. The female voice is Captain Tammie Jo Shults. The male voice saying “Southwest 1380” is First Officer Darren Ellisor. I do not know the names of the air traffic controllers, but one (male) was responsible for the New York region of the continent, one (male) was responsible for the approach to Philadelphia airport, and one (female) was responsible for Philadelphia tower.

The best recording is Southwest 1380 (engine failure 4/17/2018) ENTIRE EVENT: actual multi-sector ATC audio (Youtube video with titles, Apr 17, 2018). This was posted by ATC Memes, who says, “We usually post jokes, but this is serious and had to be shared. What an incredible demonstration of real air traffic control.” Absolutely! Another recording of much the same traffic is in MP3 files posted to 17 April – SWA1380, a LiveATC.net forum thread. Those are conveniently streamable from Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 engine failure (courtesy LiveATC.net) (streaming audio, 17. April 2018, The Morning Call).

The first time I listened to this, I got tears in my eyes from how well the pilots and controllers performed. Yet I resist the word “hero”: I think it not the right word for this pilot (Captain Shults) in this situation. “Professional”, yes. “Tremendously skilled and well-trained”, yes. “Admirable”, yes. But the usual dictionary definition of “hero”, as “a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability”, no.

Captain Tammie Jo Shults is the most prominent of the many skilled professionals who responded in this situation. She deserves a lot of credit. The other pilot in that cockpit, Darren Ellisor. The controllers stepped right up. The other pilots coming into that airport could tell what was going on and cooperated in staying out of the way.

You know who should be getting more adulation in the media? The flight attendents on Southwest 1380. I don’t know their names. But they were the ones in the damaged part of the airplane. They are the ones who had to directly care for the dead passenger, and the possibly injured, certainly scared passengers. They should be getting just as much attention as the captain. And the crew’s official statement from Southwest Airlines backs this up: “As Captain and First Officer of the Crew of five who worked to serve our Customers aboard Flight #1380 yesterday, we all feel we were simply doing our jobs.… – Southwest Captain Tammie Jo Shults and Southwest Airlines First Officer Darren Ellisor” [Emphasis added.]

I would like also to give credit to some people who were not present in the situation, but who set the situation up for better outcomes. The engineers who designed the aircraft to keep functioning despite damage, and to make such a failure such a rare event, deserve credit. The regulators and planners and others, who came up with the procedures which mapped a path out of the situation, deserve credit. The trainers and check pilots who set up everyone involved to perform so well deserve credit.

Our culture has a poverty of ways to praise good work. We tend to fall back on “hero”, because we don’t have a wide range of better terms. Paul Bertorelli put it thoughtfully: “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.…” (The Mantle Of Heroism, AvWeb, 19. April 2018).

If you read more about what people who know aviation (much better than me, by the way) have to say about this accident and the professional response to it, here are some links:

This is a great time to share the link to two videos capturing skilled crews competently handling inflight emergencies, or at least situations.

Simon Lowe’s ThomsonFly 757 bird strike & flames captured on video (Youtube video). A beautifully produced video with excellent audio of the air traffic control and aircraft radio traffic. Flight “Thompson 263H” strikes a bird on takeoff from Manchester (UK) airport, shuts down their right engine, then returns to land. The air traffic controllers acquit themselves very well.

PilotsEYE.tv’s Airbus A340 EMERGENCY – Engine Failure,  (Youtube video, AviationTV, Jun 6, 2012). A Swiss flight from Zurich to Shanghai is equipped with multiple cameras and microphones, so that the TV crew can show exquisite details of how Captain Thomas Frick, First Officer Manuela Durussel, and First Officer Hans-Konrad Stamm fly and manage the flight. It happens they have a problem with engine #3 showing an excessively high oil temperature. The deliberate and carefully-plotted steps they take to diagnose the situation and decide what to do are clearly revealed. Between the lines, you can see Captain Frick taking several opportunities to challenge his first officers to think through the situation, to train them in his decision-making process, and to enlist them to cross-check what he does. Plus, for German-speakers, the rich Swiss German which the crew use between themselves is delightful, albeit a bit tough to follow. But watch for the phrases where they switch to English. I suspect the 15-minute video linked above is not officially posted by the producers. Take a look at the PilotsEYE.tv trailer for the Airbus A340 Emergency video (Youtube video, PilotsEYE.tv, Jun 6, 2012), to give credit where it is due.

The reason that commercial aviation is so amazingly safe is the professionalism, the training, the high performance, the excellent design by skilled and dedicated people in the air and on the ground. I hope this gives you a little bit more insight into that.