MIAMI, Florida (CNN) — It’s a nightmarish scenario straight out of the movies: A passenger is forced to land a plane after its pilot becomes incapacitated.
“Descend and maintain 5,000. Just take your time, we’ll set you up for the airport,” an air traffic controller says.
In a calm voice, a passenger responds: “I need to get my throttle set for this descent. I don’t know where to set it at.”
The reality was playing aboard a plane over Florida on Sunday in what the National Air Traffic Controllers Association called “an Easter miracle.” The incident began about 1:30 p.m. The plane, a Super King Air two-engine turboprop with four passengers on board, was headed to Jackson, Mississippi, from Marco Island, Florida, about 18 miles south of Naples.
The plane entered the jurisdiction of air traffic control at Miami Center, the facility responsible for high-altitude air traffic in southern Florida and the Caribbean, according to a statement issued by the air traffic controllers association.
The pilot notified controllers that the plane was at 9,000 feet and climbing, said Steve Wallace, Miami Center spokesman for the association. However, a controller at the center tried twice to raise the pilot after that and received no response, Wallace said.
After a few moments, a different voice came over the radio: Passenger Doug White told air traffic controllers the pilot was unconscious and they needed help. His wife and two teenage daughters were flying home to Louisiana with him, he said.
He reported the plane’s autopilot was on and the plane was continuing to climb from 10,000 feet.
“I told my girls to pray hard,” White later told CNN television affiliate WINK.
White later told the Naples Daily News he has a pilot’s license and about 130 hours experience flying a single engine Cessna, but had never flown the larger, faster King Air.
The difference, experts said, is not as simple as driving a different model of car. A turboprop multi-engine, Wallace told CNN, “probably lands at a faster speed than he’s ever flown a single-engine plane before.”
White, who was traveling home to Louisiana with his wife and two teenaged daughters, told air traffic controllers it appeared the pilot had died, according to the statement, and he reported that the plane’s autopilot was on and the plane was continuing to climb from 10,000 feet.
Two air traffic controllers worked to help him disengage the autopilot, as other controllers stepped in to lighten their workload. “Keep it coming around when you can … the turn looks good, very good sir,” a controller said.
The controllers then turned the plane over to air traffic controllers at the airport. One of them had already called a friend who was certified in the King Air planes for advice.
“They walked him through flipping the switches, turning the knobs,” Wallace said.
White, who was composed for the most part, seemed doubtful for a brief moment. “When I touch down … If I ever touch down, do I just kill the throttle or what?” he asks. The landing was successful.
“I knew we had to do something … I knew that much,” White told WINK.
The Federal Aviation Administration has not given any of the involved air traffic controllers permission to speak about the incident, Wallace said. However, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association lauded all of those involved in landing the plane.
“If you were to ask any one of the controllers who worked this even about what happened over the skies of south Florida, they would tell you that it was just a typical day at the office and that it was merely their job,” association President Patrick Forrey said in the statement. “However, the actions they all took to save the passengers aboard the flight were beyond heroic.”
Victoria Moreland, spokeswoman for Southwest Florida International Airport, said the pilot’s death was confirmed after the plane landed. The cause of death was unclear, Moreland said.
It’s rare for a pilot to suffer a medical emergency during flight, said Chris Dancy, spokesman for the Frederick, Maryland-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. The organization issues a yearly summary of accident trends and factors based on National Transportation Safety Board reports involving aircraft of less than 12,500 pounds — smaller than the King Air involved in Sunday’s incident.
According to the most recent report, which covers the year 2007, out of 22 million general aviation flight hours, an estimated 15 to 20 million flights, only six instances of a pilot’s medical incapacitation were reported, he said. In four of those instances, the pilot died.