Media should celebrate pilot for heroic actions, not gender

As a story about an emergency plane landing unfolded, news headlines across the country celebrated the pilot’s skillful control over the plane’s descent as its engine broke down. Despite the pilot’s impressive performance, their gender has, unreasonably, become the most publicized aspect of the story. 

People should not be surprised that this pilot is a woman. Women are just as capable of strength, courage and success in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields as their male counterparts. This brave individual should be celebrated for their act of valor—not for their gender.

Southwest flight 1380 just departed from John F. Kennedy International Airport when things started to go south. 

“Southwest 1380, we’re single engine,” Captain Tammie Jo Shults said to air traffic personnel, according to The Washington Post. The pilot’s voice was calm, yet focused as her plane descended, telling air traffic control she had “149 souls” on board, The Washington Post reported.

The engine on Shults’ plane exploded, “spraying shrapnel into the aircraft, causing a window to be blown out and leaving one woman dead and seven other people injured,” as reported by The Washington Post.

In the midst of pandemonium, Shults guided the plane onto the runway for an emergency landing in Philadelphia. She touched down at 190 mph, saving the lives of 148 people aboard and avoiding a far worse catastrophe.

“She has nerves of steel,” passenger Alfred Tumlinson said, according to The Washington Post. Shults clearly demonstrated her bravery and proficiency in this dangerous situation. 

Some media sources, however, were quick to mistake this pilot’s actions as characteristic of a man. When the story first hit the media, some reports incorrectly painted the image of Shults as if she were a male pilot. 

For example, the description of the aftermath made by CBS News was flawed, as reported by CNN. CBS mistook the pilot as having the masculine pronoun “he” in their coverage of Shults’s landing. This error demonstrates the stereotype of male heroes being the only ones able to save the day.

Other sources also point to how mainstream media organizations reject this notion of assumed male heroism and expertise. The New York Times, for instance, published an article titled, “Sully Was Impressed by Southwest Pilot’s Emergency Landing.”

While this Times piece describes Shults’s story, thereby harnessing good intentions toward Shults, it ultimately counteracts its own argument. The focus is taken off of her and shifts toward Chesley B. Sullenberger III, or “Sully,” the pilot who completed his plane’s emergency landing in the Hudson River nine years ago.

“Certainly there are some similarities,” Sullenberger said in an interview with The New York Times. He explained that he was “impressed” that Shults and her crew “seem to have done a really good job.”

The fact that an entire article is written to share that Sullenberger is proud of Shults may be good-natured, but it is actually demeaning. This lens looks to a male pilot to credit a female pilot’s story. Both of their stories were tumultuous and brave, but this concept suggests that Sullenberger and Shults exist in a hierarchy where a woman’s story is not complete without a man’s commentary.

As more details about the heroic landing of Southwest flight 1380 become known, it is imperative to remember to not be surprised that the pilot behind this achievement is female. Women are capable of daring and important acts. They do not need men in their field to affirm their abilities.