How to Stay Calm When Crisis Hits

Three Lessons Learned from Captain Tammie Jo Shults

Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 experienced a crisis mid-air on April 17 when the left engine blew out, forcing an emergency landing and resulting in one dead and seven injured.

Passengers on the flight have described the terrifying chaos that took place within the moments that followed. While it is understandable that wide-spread panic occurred, one person remained calm under the dire circumstances – Capt. Tammie Jo Shults, the pilot of Flight 1380.

Capt. Shults, a former fighter pilot with the U.S. Navy, is being lauded a hero for not only her actions but also for her “nerves of steel,” as is evident in the audio between her and air traffic control.

In a crisis, it is easy to panic. Most people do, but Capt. Shults provides a great example of how to stay calm in the midst of chaos. Here are three things that likely led to her successful navigation of this disaster:

1)    She led well.

While Southwest Airlines has yet to officially comment on Capt. Shults, reports from her friends and family prove she was a seasoned expert who not only knew her craft but spent decades leading well.

Her aviation pedigree is impressive. She graduated from MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kan., in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and agribusiness. The Washington Post reports she was among the first female fighter pilots for the U.S. Navy and among the first women to fly an F/A-18 Hornet for the Navy. She left active duty in 1993 and served a year in the reserves before retiring from the Navy and becoming a Southwest Airlines pilot.

When push came to shove, she used years of education, training and focused precision to pivot her plane, her crew and her passengers out of danger and into safety.

As professionals, we should continually learn so that we know the ins and outs of our expertise. That way, in a crisis, best practices and leadership acumen go hand-in-hand.  

2)    She prepared for this day.

While I’m sure Capt. Shults didn’t know the exact details of the crisis she would face on Flight 1380, she knew she would likely one day face a crisis.

Pilots are trained in crisis management. Planes are complicated machines, and as a result, anything can go wrong. For this reason, as one expert said, every pilot is “taught to think through a range of potential mishaps, memorize checklists and plot courses of action in advance.”

How you react after a crisis can make or break you.

Preparing now to think through every negative situation and how you will react can help you take action quickly, calmly and effectively when crisis occurs.

3)    She focused on the main thing.

While we are still learning what all occurred during Flight 1380, we know that much happened in a short period of time. A failing engine, a broken window, injured passengers, loss of cabin pressure … the list goes on.

While Capt. Shults could have worried about all of these things, she ultimately had one goal in mind: to land the plane and get the 144 passengers on board safely to the ground.


She focused on this task and relied on her five crew members to help. She trusted her capable team to do their job just as they trusted her to do hers. Together, they averted what could have been an even bigger disaster and saved 143 passengers. 

Crises happen; crisis management is planned and practiced.

How are you planning today to ensure you are ready when your crisis occurs?