April 14 – Two air traffic controllers are rapidly earning heaps of praise for helping a distressed passenger guide a plane to safety Sunday after the pilot died in the cockpit.
Brian Norton and Dan Favio, who both work the TRACON at Southwest Florida International Airport in Ft. Myers, helped a passenger sitting in the co-pilot's seat as he guided the twin-engine plane to safety after the pilot's apparent heart attack.
“I couldn't be more proud of them,” said Steve Bushey, the tower's manager. “We’re happy to have a good story and particularly because the outcome was positive. You can’t beat that.”
One of the passengers, Doug White, who previously had only flown single-engine planes, was forced under the circumstances to fly his family to the airport after he declared an emergency.
White already had enough on his mind. He was returning to Louisiana — with a stop in Mississippi to retrieve his truck — after attending a funeral for his only brother. His wife and two teenage daughters were in the back of the plane and now he was charged with getting them on the ground.
A few minutes into the flight of N559DW, when the King Air 200 was 10,000 feet aloft and climbing, White radioed the Miami Center that there was an emergency. Controllers at the Ft. Myers airport were quickly notified, and a radar scope showing only the King Air was set up in the tower.
Controller Brian Norton was walking down the hallway and ready to leave for the day when his supervisor called him back because of his piloting experience.
He plugged into the console and “could tell the pilot was struggling a little bit to get the plane under control. He told me he was getting alarms in the cockpit and he was descending too fast,” Norton said. “It’s a pretty complex airplane.”
Dan Favio, a developmental controller who has been with FAA for six months after military and private contracting controller experience, learned of the problem while he was eating lunch.
Thinking quickly, he called a friend and flight instructor, Kari Sorenson, who had thousands of hours of flight experience on the King Air 200.
“I sat beside Brian and called [Sorenson],” Favio said. “He just happened to be sitting in his office and he was able to pull out the checklist for the [King Air 200] and the cockpit diagram.”
As the pilot asked questions – air speed, flap control, trim locations – Favio relayed the questions back to his friend.
Favio, who also has logged some time behind single-engine planes, said his biggest concern was that White would slow the plane too much. Because landing speeds for twin-engine airplanes are much faster than those for single-engine planes, Favio continued to tell Norton, who then told White, what the minimum airspeed was and not to drop below it.
“He definitely had his hands full. He was concerned about being able to handle that airplane,” Norton said.
That the pilot had his hands full isn’t surprising. Sorenson said the King Air 200 is “one of the most complicated airplanes to fly.”
At first, White reported having difficulty trying to control the King Air 200. Sorenson told him – through the controllers – to fly it like it was a single-engine plane.
“Once he started doing that that’s when things really started to settle down,” Sorenson said.
About six miles from Runway 6, with the winds nearly calm, White asked for final approach speed. Favio asked his friend and the answer was quickly relayed to White.
Through that relay, Norton helped White line up his approach, adjust his flaps to the proper setting and put the landing gears down at the proper airspeed and altitude.
Meanwhile, Favio was calling out altitudes and airspeeds to Sorenson. Everything looked good, but Favio was worried the pilot was coming in a little bit short of the 12,000-foot runway at the Ft. Myers airport.
After a brief pause in the communication, an audibly shaken White can be heard coming over the microphone.
“We’re down, buddy. Thank you,” he said.