Pilot down, passenger takes over with ‘no idea how to fly’

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In this still image from video by WPTV shows emergency personnel surrounding a Cessna plane at Palm Beach International Airport Tuesday, May 10, 2022, in West Palm Beach, Fla. A passenger with no flying experience was able to land the plane safely with help of air traffic controllers after the pilot was too sick to handle the controls. (WPTV via AP)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A passenger with no flying experience radioed an urgent plea for help when the pilot of a small plane suddenly fell ill off Florida’s Atlantic coast, and was able to land the plane safely with the help of air traffic controllers.

“I’ve got a serious situation here,” the man said Tuesday afternoon, according to audio on LiveATC.net, a website that broadcasts and archives air traffic controller communications. “My pilot has gone incoherent. I have no idea how to fly the airplane.”

An air traffic controller in Fort Pierce responded, asking if he knew the position of the single-engine Cessna 208.

“I have no idea. I can see the coast of Florida in front of me, and I have no idea,” the passenger said.

According to Flight Aware, the plane had taken off earlier Tuesday from Marsh Harbour International Airport in the Bahamas. The aircraft was occupied by the pilot and two passengers, according to a Federal Aviation Administration news release. Officials haven’t identified any of them.

As the plane flew over Florida, controller Christopher Flores, speaking very calmly, told the passenger to “maintain wings level and try to follow the coast, either north or southbound.” Twin controls enable a Cessna 208 to be steered from the passenger seat.

Minutes passed before controllers were able to locate the plane, which by then was heading north over Boca Raton.

Then the man’s voice seemed to fade, so the controller in Fort Pierce asked for the passenger’s cellphone number to enable controllers at Palm Beach International Airport to communicate with him more clearly.

Air traffic controller Robert Morgan, a 20-year veteran, took over at that point, talking the passenger down to a safe landing. Morgan is a certified flight instructor with experience piloting Cessna aircraft, the FAA said.

“Kudos to the new pilot,” one controller told him after the plane smoothly wheeled down the tarmac.

Rescue workers assisted the original pilot, officials said. Neither passenger had any injuries. Officials did not immediately say what caused the pilot to fall ill.

Morgan said in a video released by the FAA that he was just doing his job, but at a higher level than he thought he would have to do it.

“We’ve never had anything like that,” Morgan said. “I felt like I was in a movie.”

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