At noon EDT on Tuesday, May 10, the pilot of a Cessna 208 flying to Florida from the Bahamas told his two passengers he wasn’t feeling well. He fell against the controls, putting the aircraft into a nosedive and sharp turn. The passengers had no flying experience, and what unfolded thereafter was truly remarkable thanks to a team of air traffic controllers.
At that point, one of the passengers jumped into action. He pulled the aircraft out of the nosedive and called Fort Pierce Tower at Treasure Coast International Airport in Fort Pierce, Fla., to let them know the pilot was incapacitated, and that he had no flying experience.
“I’ve got a serious situation here … the pilot is incoherent … and I have no idea how to fly the airplane.” — audio from radio call
Controller Christopher “Chip” Flores at Fort Pierce Tower received the radio call and asked the passenger the location of the plane. The passenger did not know where the aircraft was. With assistance from operational supervisor Justin Boyle, Flores calmly 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, rushed to provide help in tracking it. The plane was identified as being approximately 20 miles from Boca Raton Airport over the Atlantic Ocean.
Flores advised the passenger to change his radio frequency to Palm Beach air traffic control, but the passenger did not know how to change frequencies. So, basic emergency radios were used to talk to the passenger. Flores reassured the passenger that a controller at the Palm Beach air traffic facility would help him.
“That guy did a lot of the legwork to get him headed the right way. I’m sure other people in the tower were helping too.” — Robert Morgan on Chip Flores and Justin Boyle.
The lead air traffic controller at Palm Beach air traffic facility, Gregory Battani, quickly called that controller, Robert Morgan, a certified flight instructor with experience piloting Cessna aircraft, from his break to guide the pilot to Palm Beach Airport. Morgan offered clear, short directions on how to fly and confirmed that the passenger understood each instruction.
The entire air traffic control team at Palm Beach Tower stepped in to provide support. Mark Siviglia, the operations manager, stopped departures at Palm Beach Airport. Controllers contacted adjacent control facilities to put aircraft into holding patterns and to expect delays due to the ongoing emergency. Tower controllers dispatched emergency responders and moved vehicles and aircraft away from the runway to prepare for the passenger’s attempt to land. The air traffic manager, Ryan Warren, printed a photo of the Cessna 208 cockpit for Morgan’s reference.
“We’ve never had anything like that…I felt like I was in a movie,” said Morgan. “Everybody wanted to participate and came out of the offices to assist in any kind of way.”
The passenger initially wanted to land at Boca Raton, but Morgan instead guided him to Palm Beach International Airport because it had a longer runway, was less congested, and had adequate radio coverage. Morgan walked the passenger through turns, selecting flap settings needed to create enough lift at slower speeds and trim (to alleviate pressure from the control surfaces during flap extension) and explaining how to land. He then made sure the passenger had the Palm Beach runway in sight.
Morgan guided the passenger through a long, stable final approach. He described what the runway was going to look like as the plane descended. Once the aircraft was over the runway, Morgan explained to the passenger how to keep the nose barely off the ground until the main gear touchdown. The passenger did not know how to stop the plane, so the controller instructed the pilot how to brake and adjust levers.
The aircraft successfully landed at 12:27 p.m. local time. First responders were there to assist with the original pilot. Neither passenger had any injuries.
“At the end of the day, I feel like I was just doing my job,” Morgan said, “but it was like on a higher level than you thought you’d have to do it.”
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