Pakistan releases captured Indian pilot as confrontation cools

People celebrate before the release of Indian Air Force pilot, who was captured by Pakistan on Wednesday, in a street in Ahmedabad, India, March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Amit Dave

By Krishna N. Das and Abu Arqam Naqash

WAGAH, India/MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistan handed a captured Indian pilot back to his country on Friday as the nuclear-armed neighbors scaled back their confrontation, at least temporarily.

Television footage showed Wing Commander Abhinandan walking across the border near the town of Wagah just before 9.00 p.m. (1600 GMT). Indian officials confirmed he had been returned and said he would be taken for medical checks.

Abhinandan was shot down on Wednesday while flying a MiG-21 fighter jet that crashed in Pakistani territory after a dogfight with a Pakistani JF-17.

World powers have urged restraint from the two nations, as tensions escalated following a suicide car bombing that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Feb. 14.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said earlier on Friday the pilot would be released “as a gesture of peace and to de-escalate matters”.

Before the pilot was released, Pakistani television stations broadcast video of him, looking cleaned up, thanking the Pakistani army for treating him well.

“The Pakistani army is a very professional service,” he said.

Throughout the day, crowds on the Indian side thronged the road to the crossing, shouting nationalist slogans and waving Indian flags.

“Pakistan is releasing our pilot, I thank them for that,” said Kulwant Singh, who has run a food stall at the crossing for 20 years.

“War can never be good. War is bad for business, war is bad for our soldiers.”

The disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir has been at the root of two of the three wars fought between India and Pakistan since they gained independence from Britain in 1947.

There was some firing along the contested border dividing Kashmir on Friday, according to a spokesman for India’s defense ministry, but the hostilities were well short of previous days.

Pakistan reopened some airports on Friday, after easing airspace restrictions that had disrupted flights between Asia and Europe for several days during the conflict.

Relations between the two countries, however, remain strained.

Qureshi said he would not attend a meeting of foreign ministers from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Abu Dhabi this weekend, because his Indian counterpart had been invited to the event.

India also faces an ongoing battle against armed militants in its portion of Kashmir. On Friday, four security personnel and a civilian were killed in a gun battle with militants, officials said.

(Reporting by Alasdair Pal, James Mackenzie, Krishna Das, Asif Shahzad, Saad Sayeed, Abu Arqam Naqash, Fayaz Bukhari, Shilpa Jamkhandikar and Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Frances Kerry)

‘Angels’ and training help former fighter pilot save Southwest flight

Emergency personnel monitor the damaged engine of Southwest Airlines Flight 1380, which diverted to the Philadelphia International Airport this morning after the airline crew reported damage to one of the aircraft's engines, on a runway in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania U.S. April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Makela

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – The pilot who safely landed a stricken Southwest Airlines flight on Tuesday got her first flying experience in the U.S. Navy, touching down F-18 fighter jets at 150 miles per hour on aircraft carriers.

Tammie Jo Shults, 56, may have drawn on her Navy skills when one of the two engines on her Boeing 737-700 blew and broke apart at 32,000 feet on Tuesday, forcing her to implement a rapid descent toward Philadelphia International Airport.

The explosion killed one passenger and nearly sucked another out of a shattered window.

One of the first female fighter pilots in the U.S. Navy, Shults calmly told air traffic control that part of her plane was missing, and she would need ambulances on the runway.

“So we have a part of the aircraft missing so we’re going to need to slow down a bit,” Shults told a controller.

Many of the 144 passengers sang her praise on social media after Shults thanked them for their bravery as they left the plane.

“The pilot Tammy Jo was so amazing! She landed us safely in Philly,” said Amanda Bourman on Instagram.

Passengers identified Shults as the pilot. Southwest Airlines declined to name the crew of flight 1380 and Shults was not immediately available for comment.

Authorities said the crew did what they were trained to do.

“They’re in the simulator and practice emergency descents..and losing an engine… They did the job that professional airline pilots are trained to do,” National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt told reporters.

“GOD SENT HIS ANGELS”

Shults might never have become a pilot if she had not been so determined to fly from a young age.

She is quoted on fighter plane blog F-16.net saying she tried to attend an aviation career day at high school but was told they did not accept girls.

A native of New Mexico, she never lost the urge to fly and, after studying medicine in Kansas, applied to the Air Force. It would not let her take the test to become a pilot, but the U.S. Navy did.

She was one of the first female F-18 pilots and became an instructor before she left the Navy in 1993 and joined Southwest, according to the blog.

A Christian, who is married to a fellow pilot and has two children, Shults said that sitting in the captain’s chair gave her “the opportunity to witness for Christ on almost every flight.”

Bourman was among passengers who said they had been saved by divine intervention.

“God sent his angels to watch over us,” she said.

(Reporting By Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; additional reporting by Bill Tarrant in Los Angeles; Editing by Neil Fullick)