How a passenger with no flight experience landed a plane in a nosedive after the pilot passed out

·3 min read

When passenger Darren Harrison heard his pilot say he wasn't feeling well and saw him suddenly slump over the controls of the single-engine plane, sending it into a nosedive, he sprung into action.

Harrison was one of two passengers in the Cessna 208 plane flying from the Bahamas to Florida when the pilot became incapacitated Tuesday afternoon.

Despite having no flying experience, Harrison climbed over three rows of seats into the cockpit, moved the pilot out of his seat and scrambled to put on a pair of headphones and make contact with air traffic control — all as the plane was heading down.

In audio from a call he made to air traffic control at Fort Pierce tower, he said: “I’ve got a serious situation here. My pilot has gone incoherent. I have no idea how to fly the airplane."

At first Harrison didn’t know where the aircraft he was flying was even located. With help from air traffic controllers he was told to fly ahead and start a gradual descent, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

As he neared Palm Beach, Florida, Robert "Bobby" Morgan, a part-time flight instructor with experience piloting Cessna Aircraft, was called from his break to help out.

To Morgan, the landing was nothing short of a miracle.

“The pilot was slumped over on the controls and then they pushed him back, they get him out of his seat, then they have to get on the controls and pull back the plane so that it would climb up out of the dive it was in,” Morgan said on NBC’s "TODAY."

The runway at Palm Beach International Airport. (TODAY)
The runway at Palm Beach International Airport. (TODAY)

“I just said, ‘You look great, you’re a little fast, what I want you to do is grab the throttle. Just pull that back a little bit cause we need you be slowed down,’” he recalled.

All hands were on deck to help the passenger-pilot land safely.

Departures at the Palm Beach International Airport were halted, emergency responders were dispatched and vehicles and aircraft were moved away from the runway to make space, the FAA said.

"We’ve never had anything like that … I felt like I was in a movie,” Morgan said, according to the FAA news release. “Everybody wanted to participate and came out of the offices to assist in any kind of way."

When the time came for the plane to land at the runway, it briefly disappeared from the radar, Morgan said.

“It must’ve been no more than 10 seconds. And I kept trying to talk to him and he said, 'I'm on the ground, what do you want me to do now?'" Morgan recalled. "My heart just kind of sank just thinking, 'Thank God.'"

In audio from a separate call log from the air traffic control station following the landing, someone is heard saying, "Man, they did a great job."

“Did you say the passengers landed the plane?” another person asked. “Oh, my God. Great job.”

Once on the runway, Harrison didn’t know how to stop the plane so controllers instructed him on how to brake and adjust the levers, the FAA said.

Harrison, an executive of an interior design company whose wife is pregnant, pulled off the landing all while in flip-flops after fishing in the Bahamas.

After landing safely, one person was taken to a hospital, the Palm Beach County Fire Rescue said. The passengers did not suffer any injuries, the FAA said.

Morgan praised Harrison as “my best student ever.”

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