We could all use more feel-good stories, and this one is especially good.
First, some context:
On many levels, I think the idea of humans flying is preposterous.
Without giving it a second thought, many of us walk onto one of these…
…sit back, buckle our seatbelts, and assume that this 437-ton machine is going to leap off the ground, fly, and land in one piece back on the ground, taking us safely from Point A to Point B.
And it’s best that we assume instead of actually thinking about what we’re doing.
If we really thought about it, no one would get on an airplane, ever.
That 747-400 pictured above is one extreme of flying – here’s the other:
This small plane is a Cessna 172.
Here’s a comparison:
The plane I’m going to talk about is a Cessna 172, and here’s the only reason I know what that is:
When I met the man who would become my husband, he was a licensed pilot and part-owner of a Cessna 172.
He loved flying, loved being a pilot, and had accumulated a goodly amount of time in the air.
So it was no surprise that, as our relationship progressed, he invited me to “go up” with him.
That is, go flying with him in the Cessna 172.
I’d never been in a small plane, never had a desire to be in one. But I liked this guy and I said yes, and one gorgeous morning we arrived at a small airport.
I’d flown on commercial jets a number of times, so as we walked across the tarmac to his plane, I was struck by how small the plane was.
And by how few engines it had:
And I started thinking, “What happens if that one engine conks out?”
Commercial carriers with multiple engines can lose an engine and still land safely.
But a single-engine plane?
So I was trepidatious before we’d even reached the airplane.
The pre-hub did his pre-flight, we boarded and strapped in.
But I wasn’t focusing on the gorgeous scenery below us.
I was focusing on how afraid I was.
When you’re sitting in the cockpit of a small airplane right next to the pilot, you can see everything they’re doing.
And while I knew my pilot knew exactly what he was doing why, I didn’t know shit about anything.
His plane – like every plane – did not come equipped with one of these:
My modus operandi in a commercial airplane’s cabin in: Ignorance is bliss. I don’t want to know what the pilot and co-pilot in a commercial airplane’s cockpit are doing, any more than I want to know what a gastroenterologist is doing during a colonoscopy.
But ignorance is not possible when you’re in a small plane, sitting next to the pilot.
We’d been airborne for maybe 20 minutes and I was starting to feel a teensy bit less afraid, until another thought struck:
“What,” I thought, as I tried to appear calm, “what if my pilot suddenly gets sick? Too sick to fly the plane?”
My own knowledge of piloting was zero.
“I could DIE doing this!” I thought.
I liked this guy, but not that much.
So there I was, in a plane I didn’t know how to fly with a pilot who could pass out and leave us in…
And that’s brings us to our feel-good story:
It was the morning of May 10, and the transportation was a small, single-engine plane like this:
The Cessna 208 had taken off from Marsh Harbour International Airport in the Bahamas with a pilot and two passengers. One of the passengers was Darren Harrison (pictured below), a 39-year-old Floridian and vice president of an interior design company
About 90 minutes into the flight, Harrison heard the pilot say he wasn’t feeling well. Harrison saw the pilot slump back in his seat, and when Harrison tried to speak to him, the pilot didn’t respond.
The pilot had lost control of the plane, “sending it into a nosedive,” according to multiple media outlets.
We’d later learn that the plane had been at 9500 feet going 180 mph, then dropped more than 3,000 feet in just 16 seconds.
No one was in charge of the airplane.
My small-plane-and-sick-pilot nightmare comes true.
“…climbed over three rows of seats into the cockpit, moved the pilot out of his seat and scrambled to put on a pair of headphones and make contact with air traffic control…”
Here’s the interior of a Cessna 208 – the pilot is up front, the passenger behind:
While Darren Harrison was climbing over seats, the plane was still in a nosedive.
Here’s what a nosedive looks like:
The plane’s nose is pointing straight down toward the ground.
Or in our Cessna 208 situation, straight down toward the Atlantic Ocean.
Harrison is headed for the cockpit, knowing he has…
ZERO experience flying an airplane.
SECONDS to do something.
Of his thoughts during these few seconds, Harrison would later say,
“I’m going to have to land this airplane, because there is no other option.”
So, big-time props for his survival instinct. It may have been that instinct that prompted Harrison to put his hands on the watchamacallit and pull back, which lifted the plane out of the nosedive.
Bigger props to Harrison for having the presence of mind to put on headphones.
Major props for figuring out how to use the headphones to make radio contact with anybody, let alone the air traffic control tower at Fort Pierce on Florida’s east coast:
Here’s a recounting the first part of the conversation:
Harrison: I’ve got a serious situation here. My pilot has gone incoherent. I have no idea how to fly the airplane.
Fort Pierce dispatcher: Roger. What’s your position?
Harrison: I have no idea. I can see the coast of Florida in front of me. And I have no idea.
We’d later learn that as Harrison was pulling the plane out of the nosedive, he was also turning the plane. Harrison would later credit “common sense” for figuring this out.
I’d say that kind of common sense is not so common.
Now this, from the Associated Press story:
“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.”
Not only is Harrison in charge of a plane he doesn’t know how to fly with two other people on board, but now he also has to talk on the phone?
Then, in a stroke of incredible luck,
“Palm Beach International Airport traffic controller Robert Morgan, a 20-year veteran, took over at that point…”
We’ll learn later that Morgan happened to be working an extra shift at Palm Bech International Airport that day.
We’ll also learn that Moran happened to be a certified flight instructor with experience piloting Cessna aircraft.
Incredible luck for Harrison.
Morgan and Harrison were able to determine the plane’s airspeed and altitude, and from there, Morgan began teaching Harrison flying basics.
I’ve heard of “learn while you earn,” but this was “learn or die.”
And since the plane was above land, there was now a serious risk to people on the ground, as well.
Departures at the Palm Beach International Airport were halted, emergency responders were dispatched, and vehicles and aircraft were moved away from the runway to make space, according to an FAA news release.
Morgan guided Harrison through slowing the plane down, and then, when the plane was on final approach…
The plane disappeared from radar.
Seconds passed…two, five, eight, 10…and Morgan kept trying to make contact with Harrison.
And then…on the radio…
Harrison: I’m on the ground – what do you want me to do now?
Once on the ground, controllers instructed Harrison on how to brake and stop the plane:
Harrison – and Morgan – had flown the plane, saved three (and probably more) lives, and they made a safe landing around 12:30pm at Palm Beach International Airport.
Here’s the path of the plane:
Throughout this miracle – and what else can you call it? Darren and the passengers suffered no injuries.
The pilot was taken to a hospital, and we’d later learn he had suffered an aortic aneurysm. There was talk of releasing him from the hospital on May 16.
The story got international coverage including this May 12 article in Great Britain’s Daily Mail:
The article said,
“Once Harrison landed, Morgan ran out to meet Harrison and the two hugged on the tarmac.
“Morgan said, ‘It felt really good to help somebody, and he [Harrison] told me that he was going to go home tonight to see his pregnant wife.’”
Morgan would later tell an NBC reporter that Harrison was “My best student ever!”
That was May 10, and Harrison was reportedly not talking to the media – until the May 16 Today Show:
In this image Harrison was saying, “We were in a dive like this.”
Gosh, one flying lesson, and Harrison is talking like a pilot! It’s well-known that pilots talk with their hands…
What we don’t know is if Harrison got out of the plane and did this:
Kiss the ground or, in this case, kiss the runway.
So…lots to feel good about in this story.
And as for me…
I married my pilot.
But I declined to “go up” with him again in his Cessna 172.
And he was fine with that.
And as for Darren’s and my small-aircraft situations, I can only heave a sigh of relief and say…