The Air Up There Podcast
Miracle in the Air

Season 4, Episode 5

Imagine you're a passenger on a small plane and your pilot becomes unconscious. What would you do? That was the reality for Darren Harrison when the pilot on his plane went unconscious mid-flight on May 10. Darren had to quickly transition from a passenger to a pilot with absolutely no flying experience.

Take a deep breath as we walk you through that exact experience we005ve dubbed "Miracle in the Air" in the latest episode of our podcast. It was a team effort to land the plane safely, and we caught up with some of the key players.

Tune in to hear from Fort Pierce Tower air traffic controller Chip Flores and supervisor Justin Boyle, who took the initial emergency call from Harrison that day; as well as Palm Beach Air Traffic manager Ryan Warren, Palm Beach controller/Flight Instructor Robert Morgan, and Domestic Event Network manager Joe Heuser, each had a significant role throughout the ordeal.

This episode highlights the very important role of an air traffic controller and related safety professionals. Without their experience and quick thinking, the miracle in the air could have ended differently.

The FAA is seeking diverse applicants to take on the challenging and highly rewarding job of an air traffic controller. The nationwide entry level application window will be open June 24-27 for all eligible U.S. citizens. Share this podcast episode and career opportunity with those in your network.

Miracle in the Air
Miracle in the Air
Audio file

Chip 00:00:
Caravan 333 Lima Delta, Fort Pierce Tower.

I've got a serious situation here. My pilot has gone incoherent. I have no idea how to fly the airplane.

Chris 00:03:
That was the voice of passenger Darren Harrison calling air traffic control from the small plane he found himself flying off the coast of Florida on May 10. The pilot went unconscious at the controls upon suffering an arterial tear. And Harrison, with absolutely no flying experience, had to take control of the plane. I'm Chris Troxell. And you're listening to The Air Up There.

DaiJah 00:34:
And I'm DaiJah Metoyer. This was a truly terrifying situation for those passengers. And what occurred has been called a miracle — a miracle made possible by the many people who got involved. Fort Pierce Tower controller, Chip Flores, and his supervisor, Justin Boyle, took the initial emergency call from Harrison.

Chip 00:56:
As soon as I heard the words, "serious situation," I had already jumped forward and pushed the button on the console to put this on the speaker in the tower. Now everybody around me is jumping into action because everybody knows the situation already. Right off the bat, I didn't want to overwhelm them or give them too much to do because I knew he wasn't the pilot. I immediately told him to start descending, and I told him to keep his wings level because I knew he wasn't a pilot, and I was just trying to keep things simple for him and not give them too many things to do at one time. While I was working on that, everybody around me had already jumped into action. The guys next to me were calling the radar control facility that works the airspace above us, and that's Palm Beach approach. My supervisor behind me was offering up other ideas and stuff so we could help locate him because at this point, I had no idea where he was and where he was supposed to be, who he was supposed to be talking to. I have a radar display up in the tower that was showing me about 10, 15 miles away from the airport. I can zoom it out to about 60 miles, so I'm zooming it out as far as I can go, looking for him.

Justin 01:57:
I contacted Palm Beach, explained the situation to them, explained that there was a radio frequency problem because the passenger didn't know how to operate the equipment, and I made sure that we kept the lines of communication open with Palm Beach, the Domestic Events Network, and I also made sure that our controllers kept the frequency clear so Palm Beach could communicate with them.

DaiJah 02:22:
Here's where we really start to see the quick thinking.

Chris 02:25:
Yeah, DaiJah. Other Palm Beach controllers helped by stopping nearby flight training and departures.

DaiJah 02:30:
Palm Beach Air Traffic Manager Ryan Warren filled us in.

Chris 02:33:
And good thing Robert Morgan was there. He wasn't even supposed to be working that day. Luckily, he had traded shifts with a colleague.

Ryan 02:41:
And we identified it as being approximately 20 miles east of us over the Atlantic Ocean. Because the passenger did not know how to change frequencies, the operations manager Mark Siviglia instead used emergency radios to talk to the passenger on Fort Pierce's frequency. Mark calmed the passenger and let them know that Palm Beach air traffic had a pilot on duty who would be able to assist him in landing. Simultaneous to Mark communicating with the pilot, the controller in charge, Greg Battani, urgently recalled Robert Morgan from break.

I get a page that says, come to the red room immediately. And normally Monday through Friday no one ever pages like that. That would be really weird. So I was like, this can't be good.

Ryan 03:25:
While Robert was on his way back, I printed out a picture of the cockpit for a Cessna 208. I printed both an analog and a glass cockpit layout. I ran those into the TRACON to deliver to Robert.

Robert 03:36:
I said, I want you to start a slow turn to the north, so the shoreline is going to be off your right side, and I want you to just kind of follow that. I watched his heading on the radar scope, and I kept him pointed the right way. He was around 3,000 feet, and I said, what we're going to do is bring you into Palm Beach: big runway; we'll have emergency vehicles there for you, and it'll be a lot easier for you.

And he's like, good idea. So I asked him, What do you see? He's like, well I do see my altitude, but I don't see air speed. And there was another passenger on board; two passengers and one pilot that was unconscious. And he said, I don't see the airspeed, but then somebody else said, yeah, you have it. And he must have pointed to the instrument. And he did see his airspeed. So I said well, OK, well, we need to get you to slow down some. So I tell him just reduce your throttle, and you'll start to descend and slow. So I was able to basically just get him to descend a few 100 feet for every mile as he got closer into the airport. As he's on the way in, I started to talk to him about how the brakes would work. And I've never flown that plane, but I was 99 percent sure the brakes were going to be the same, which usually the brakes are on the top of the rudder pedals; you just put pressure on the top of the pedal, it would come to a stop when you're on the runway. So I kind of gave him a short lesson on that on the way in just to kind of let him know what to expect. So as he's getting closer, we're just talking about altitude, how am I looking? He was he was lined up with the runway, so he saw it. We had people in the tower watching it that could have like kind of relayed to us or something, but he was calm all the way in, how am I looking? I just said your altitude is good. You're 1,000 feet; you're 600 feet; you're 300 feet. And then he, he disappeared off the radar scope, so I was kind of like, uh oh, what I do now? So I'm just like, hey, I don't see any more on my radar. I just want to make sure you're still there. Can you still hear me? Yeah, I still hear you. Okay, so the runway is going to be kind of narrow. But as you're getting closer, it's going to get bigger. And that's when you want to start to transition to that landing. So you want to start bringing your power back slowly, and start looking towards the end of the runway, start pulling the control back, and you'll come in for a landing. And then before I knew it, he said, I'm on the ground now. I'm on the ground now. What do you want me to do? At the end of the day, I feel like that's, I was just doing my job, but it was just like, on a higher level than you ever thought you had to do it.

DaiJah 06:00:
I'm speechless. This whole thing is simply amazing. But there's another key piece of this. That's the role of the Domestic Event Network or, as we call it, the DEN, a 24/7 communication line between FAA headquarters, the air traffic control centers and other agencies.

Chris 06:19:
Good point, DaiJah. We got the inside scoop from DEN manager Joe Heuser on how this unfolded.

Joe 06:29:
Right as we were getting that report from Miami, our DEN air traffic security coordinator pulled aircraft up in our system and observed along with Miami that the aircraft had left its original flight plan course. Also, we noticed that disturbing altitude change; he basically descended out of eight down to six and then came back up to 9,000. And for us in the DEN, as air traffic security coordinators, that is textbook of what we've considered national security threat initially until we can alleviate what is going on in the aircraft. Right away. We started calling and trying to get more information. Once we were able to verify that information — and, obviously, we felt a little bit easier that we didn't truly have a national security threat — we simply had an emergency; the system was working; their air traffic was reporting to the DEN; we were getting information; we quickly reached out to Palm Beach and had them dial into the DEN so that we could share what we knew. At that time, also, we were dealing with our DOD partners. The DOD was very concerned at this point for the national security because we had not confirmed it was a medical emergency, and they had activated and launched fighters out of Homestead Air Force Base from the Eastern Air Defense Sector. Luckily, due to the FAA and all of our coordination procedures that we have in place and the great team you have down there in Florida with Palm Beach and Miami and Fort Pierce, we were able to quickly get the information out over the Domestic Event Network and deescalate it to a medical emergency. And then everything you've previously heard up to this point … the miracle was happening in the background and controllers were doing what we do every day to make sure people get home safely, so hats off to them.

Chris 08:15:
So many key players in this terrifying situation were able to create the best possible outcome. Now, do you want to be the next hero in air traffic control? The FAA is accepting applications from June 24th to 27th. So be sure to check out our Be ATC page on for more info. And that's our show for today.

DaiJah 08:34:
The Air Up There is a podcast from the Federal Aviation Administration. If you liked today's episode, remember to subscribe and share it with someone else. You can find the FAA on social media. We're @FAA on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn and @FAAnews on Twitter and YouTube.

Chris 08:53:
Thanks for listening!