The Effort To Help Incapacitated Pilot
On May 17, 2011, the pilot of a Cirrus SR22 became incapacitated while climbing for 17,000, through clouds, out of San Bernardino en route to Colorado Springs -- we now have audio of the event. On board the Cirrus, a 70-year-old pilot was flying with his non-pilot wife. They were in daytime IFR conditions when the Cirrus pilot is heard on frequency breathing heavily. He then appears to become incoherent. Shortly thereafter, his wife responds to inquiries from the controller, stating, "I'm trying to help. Hang on." The next 40 minutes of the flight showcase a coordinated effort by the controller, the pilot of a passing Great Lakes Airlines commercial flight, and the non-pilot wife on board the SR22, as they attempt to guide the aircraft away from rising terrain and down to a lower altitude. AVweb has obtained and edited audio from the event.
As the incident unfolds, the controller and the Great Lakes Airlines pilot recognize what they believe are symptoms of hypoxia in the Cirrus pilot. They quickly begin working together on frequency to help the Cirrus pilot's wife guide the aircraft through the clouds to a lower altitude. In the process, the Great Lakes flight diverts to chase down the Cirrus and attempts to walk the Cirrus pilot's wife through autopilot procedures. But as the wife attempts to guide the aircraft, she mistakenly turns the Cirrus north toward rising terrain. The controller recognizes this and works with the Great Lakes pilot to direct the Cirrus away from the mountains and to a lower altitude. With their help, the wife manages a turn and an uneven descent to approximately 10,000 feet. At that altitude, her husband begins to regain his faculties. After a long silence, the Cirrus pilot is heard again on frequency, but he seems to want to turn back to resume course and climb over the mountains. Both the controller and pilot of the Great Lakes Airlines flight convince him instead to land at a nearby airport as soon as he feels able, which he ultimately does, at Farmington airport in New Mexico.