Pilot down, passenger takes over with ‘no idea how to fly’

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A passenger in a small plane off Florida’s Atlantic coast used the cockpit radio to make an urgent plea for help after he realized that the pilot was too sick to handle the controls.

“I’ve got a serious situation here,” the man said Tuesday. “My pilot has gone incoherent. I have no idea how to fly the airplane.”

An air traffic controller in Fort Pierce responded, asking if he knew the position of the single-engine Cessna 280.

“I have no idea. I can see the coast of Florida in front of me, and I have no idea,” he said.

Twin controls enable a Cessna 280 to be steered from the passenger seat. Speaking very calmly, the controller told him to “maintain wings level and try to follow the coast, either north or southbound.”

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 his cellphone number to enable controllers at Palm Beach International Airport to communicate with him more clearly.

Air traffic controller Robert Morgan, a 20-year veteran, took over at that point, talking the passenger down to a safe landing.

“Kudos to the new pilot,” one controller told him after the plane smoothly wheeled down the tarmac.

Morgan told WPBF that he felt like he was in the right place at the right time.

“I knew the plane was flying like any other plane. I just had to keep him calm, point him to the runway and just tell him how to reduce the power so he could descend to land. It felt really good to help someone,” Morgan said.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Rick Breitenfeldt confirmed that the pilot and passenger were the only two people aboard. The agency is investigating, he said in an email. There was no immediate word on the condition of the pilot, and authorities didn’t release their identities.