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Southwest pilot speaks out for the first time after deadly midair incident

Southwest pilot Tammie Jo Shults speaks out for first time after the flight that experienced deadly engine failure.
/ Source: TODAY

She’s been hailed a hero after landing a Southwest Airlines plane suffering from engine failure, and it turns out that pilot Tammie Jo Shults wasn't even supposed to be flying that day.

In her first interview since the April flight that left one passenger dead, the former U.S. Navy fighter pilot told ABC’s “20/20” that she hadn’t actually been scheduled for the trip, but traded it with her husband Dean who is also a Southwest pilot so that she could attend their son’s track meet.

“I’m not trading with him anymore,” she said with a laugh.

Shults recalled the events that took place during the scheduled flight from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport to Texas' Dallas Love Field carrying 149 people.

“It was really like any other flying day,” she said of the moments before the engine failure, which happened 20 minutes after take-off.

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Her co-pilot Darren Ellisor, a U.S. Air Force veteran, told “20/20,” “Everything was exactly the way it's supposed to be, just rolling down the runway and when you get to a certain speed, you take off.”

But after a large bang and rapid decompression, they began experiencing severe vibration. They first thought it might have been a seizure of the aircraft, but realized it was something else when they needed oxygen masks.

“The seizure of the aircraft would not cause a rapid decompressions, so we knew that something extraordinary had happened pretty quickly,” Shults explained.

They decided they needed to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia as soon as they could.

“We would have turned to Philadelphia anyway and started coming down, we just wouldn't have tried to get down so quickly. But getting down to richer oxygen was certainly an important task.”

Shults has been praised for how she kept her cool during the event.

“We just took the knowledge that we had, pooled it, and used our system knowledge as well," she said.

Jennifer Riordan, a 43-year-old mother of two from Albuquerque, New Mexico, was sitting in a seat near the failed engine. The window shattered, partially sucking her from the aircraft. She was transported to the hospital after they landed, and was later pronounced dead.

Shults told “20/20” that she and the crew sent a card to Riordan’s husband, Michael.

“Hearing some of the things that her husband has said subsequently that just makes us think what a sweet and rich family they are,” Shults said. “We wanted to be respectful and let them have some time to mourn without us being public.”