Passenger Who Landed Airplane with No Flying Experience Speaks Out: 'Life or Death Situation'

·5 min read
TODAY Exclusive: Passenger-Turned-Pilot Details Miracle Landing
TODAY Exclusive: Passenger-Turned-Pilot Details Miracle Landing

TODAY/Youtube

The passenger who successfully landed a plane after its pilot fell "unconscious" is speaking out about the experience.

In a new interview with Today, Darren Harrison explained how was able to safely land the single-engine Cessna 208 aircraft on May 10 despite having no aviation experience.

"It was a life or death situation," he told Savannah Guthrie in an interview that aired Monday. "Either you do what you have to do to control the situation or you're going to die and that's what I did."

The 39-year-old was on his way back from a fishing trip in the Bahamas when the pilot told him and the other passenger — a friend of the pilot's — that he "didn't feel right."

Harrison said he quickly asked the pilot what needed to be done, by which point the aviator was already unresponsive.

Making his way to the front of the plane, he realized that the aircraft was in a nose dive, moving at a "very fast rate" over the open ocean. Harrison also clarified that the pilot never slumped forward onto the controls, as was previously reported.

RELATED: Air Traffic Controller Speaks Out After Helping Passenger Land Plane: ' I Was Just Doing My Job'

"At that point, I knew if I didn't react, that we would die," the passenger said of his immediate instinct. Harrison said he reached over the pilot's body and positioned his arms over him to grab the controls, slowly starting to "pull back on the stick and turn."

TODAY Exclusive: Passenger-Turned-Pilot Details Miracle Landing
TODAY Exclusive: Passenger-Turned-Pilot Details Miracle Landing

TODAY/Youtube

"How did you know how to do that?" Guthrie, 50, asked.

"Just common sense, I guess, being on airplanes, because I knew if I went up and yanked that the airplane would stall," the guest said. "I also knew at the rate we were going we were probably going way too fast and it would rip the wings off the airplane."

Harrison added that the first moments before he made any communication with ground controls stands out to him as "the scariest part of the whole story."

Barefoot in the front of the plane, he placed the headset that the pilot had been wearing on his head, only to discover the cord was frayed and unplugged. From there, he asked the other passenger for his headset and was able to connect with air traffic control, who guided him on how to safely land.

Once they reached the ground, Harrison said he "slowly feathered" the brakes as they made it down the runway.

"Surprisingly I felt so comfortable with it, I radioed to the guy, I said 'Hey I'm feeling pretty confident in the breaks and everything, do you guys want me to turn off the runway so I can clear this thing out,' " Harrison said.

Once the aircraft finally came to a stop, Harrison said he thanked the man on the other side of the headset before throwing it on the dash of the plane and "said the biggest prayer I've ever said in my life." He said while he prayed for the safety of everything that happened, his strongest prayer was "for the guy in the back."

"Because I knew it was not a good situation," he said.

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Fortunately, Harrison told Guthrie that the pilot is now expected to leave the hospital Monday. According to the passenger, the aviator was not expected to live when he was initially hospitalized after the incident.

Harrison said that the first call he made from the ground was to his wife Britney, who is pregnant with their first child.

When asked how he stayed focused through the frightening ordeal, Harrison cited God as his center and strength through.

"The hand of God was on that plane," he told Guthrie. "That's the only thing I can attribute it to, there's no other explanation for it."

Audio recordings from that day captured the moment when Harrison radioed into Fort Pierce Tower at Treasure Coast International Airport in Fort Pierce, Florida and let controllers know the pilot was incapacitated and that he had no flying experience.

"I've got a serious situation here," Harrison said, according to audio obtained by NBC News. "My pilot has gone incoherent. I have no idea how to fly the airplane."

Asked by dispatcher of the plane's position, the passenger said, "I have no idea. I can see the coast of Florida in front of me. And I have no idea."

From there, the dispatcher began walking the passenger through how to navigate the skies and fly the plane. According to the FAA, controller Christopher "Chip" Flores and operational supervisor Justin Boyle "instructed the man to fly straight ahead and to start a gradual descent allowing time for air traffic control to locate the aircraft." Joshua Somers, operations supervisor at Palm Beach air traffic control facility, helped track the flight, identifying it approximately 20 miles from Boca Raton Airport over the Atlantic Airport.

The Air Traffic Controller and the pilot
The Air Traffic Controller and the pilot

FAA

The tower eventually connected Harrison to air traffic controllers in Palm Beach County, who then contacted Robert Morgan — a certified flight instructor working at the Palm Beach air traffic facility— who had experience piloting a Cessna aircraft (though not that model). Morgan signed on to guide the novice pilot to Palm Beach Airport.

In an interview with the Federal Aviation Administration, Morgan opened up about the headline-making incident, revealing that despite the heightened nature of the experience, it was ultimately business as usual.

"At the end of the day, I feel like I was just doing my job," Morgan said. "But it was just on a higher level than you ever thought you had to do it."

The plane successfully landed on the runway around 12:27 p.m., the FAA said.