The image of a pilot under stress, making a heroic emergency landing with a disabled plane, is the heart of lots of movies.
"Sully" Sullenberger, the cool-headed pilot who landed US Airways Flight 1589 on the Hudson River in 2009, was played by Tom Hanks in a film based on the few minutes after a flock of birds damaged both engines and Sully was forced to land without power.
Now, rethink that image.
That is what happened Tuesday after the emergency landing of a Southwest Airlines plane in Philadelphia. An engine broke up in flight, the debris shattered a window and the rapid decompression nearly sucked out a passenger, who later died.
Oxygen masks came dangling down and the pilot took action. In recordings to air traffic control, in a calm cool voice, the pilot showed nerves of steel and landed the plane quickly and safely.
"We have a part of the aircraft missing," the pilot told air traffic control as the plane descended to safety.
The public was quick to call the pilot a hero. Her name is Tammie Jo Shults. She is one of the Navy's first female fighter pilots and the first woman to fly a F/A-18.
Why does that matter? Ultimately it doesn't. And that's the point, especially to those passengers so terrified, Some used video chat during their perceived last moments and others tried to help wounded passengers and calm terrified travelers. It was a potential catastrophe being streamed and tweeted in real time. Were they thinking of the gender of the pilot? Likely not. All they wanted was the pilot to perform flawlessly.
But, the image of the hero pilot as a "he" made some reports erroneous; not to pick on CBS, but the description of the aftermath -- "Everyone clapped and praised the pilot after he set the aircraft down" -- was wrong. And that error cultivates the stereotypical image of the cool guy saving the masses.
Shults did everything that a highly trained professional would do. It wasn't magic to her or her colleagues; they have trained and exercised for that moment of crisis for most of their careers. In other words, she is a hero to us, but for her and her colleagues she performed exactly to plan.
Shults is proof, again, that there is no "female" approach to high-risk jobs, especially those in the military and public safety. Women should be given access because there really is no difference in their performance.
The fight, for example, to get women into combat roles in our military, a debate that ultimately led to complete access for women in 2013, wasn't because there is a girl's way to fight, but because, if trained, women can perform in the same way as men.
The goal of giving women access to these jobs, and promoting them once there, isn't pursued because it makes us feel good, but because there is no reason to exclude women if they can perform as well as men.
Our images of the hero pilot aside, Shults showed that "nerves of steel" can have two X chromosomes. A combination of a person's natural inclinations and the kind of training she received in the military were the key factors in her safe landing. I'm all for promoting a female hero, and the casting for the movie may have already begun. But the lesson of the safe landing isn't that a female pilot performed heroically, but that a professional pilot performed exactly as trained.
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