A passenger with no flight training was able to land a Cessna Caravan in Palm Beach on Tuesday after the pilot collapsed at the controls. The passenger, Darren Harrison, of Lakeland, Florida, one of two passengers, was able to contact air traffic control. “I’ve got a serious situation here,” the passenger said in his initial call. “My pilot has gone incoherent. I have no idea how to fly the airplane.” After some initial guidance from controllers to get the aircraft stabilized, he was directed to Palm Beach and controller Robert Morgan, a former flight instructor, talked him in.

Morgan reportedly downloaded an image of the panel layout on a Caravan to help him tell the passenger what to push, pull and flick, but it seems his main message to the remarkably calm sudden pilot was to keep that demeanor. “I knew that if he just kept the plane, the nose pointed down and head to the big runway he had a really good chance as long as he didn’t panic,” Morgan told WPBF. The result was a slightly wobbly three pointer on the runway. Morgan was obviously careful not to overload the neophyte aviator with unnecessary information. With all three firmly on the asphalt, the passenger keyed the mic for one last bit of direction. “I have no idea how to stop the airplane.”

There were some tense moments shortly after the pilot went unconscious when the plane entered a 250-knot dive and lost about 2,500 feet before recovery. The flight originated in the Bahamas and was tracking north of Palm Beach when the pilot collapsed. The Caravan was undamaged and the pilot was taken to a Palm Beach hospital where he stayed overnight. The cause of his incapacitation was not released. The aircraft appears to be privately owned by two partners in Connecticut. AVweb left a message for Harrison, 39, who is part owner of an interior design and supply store in Lakeland but did not get a response. He has apparently refused all requests for media interviews so far.

An earlier version of this story said Harrison was the only passenger but new reports say there was at least one other person on board.

22 COMMENTS

  1. I read a report that the passenger “without any flight experience ‘ was in fact a 1,200 hr CFI who had no turbine or 208 experience. I have not seen any corroboration yet however. If that is true, the media gets another black eye for substantial misreporting an aviation event.

    Flight experience notwithstanding, handling a new, big airplane would have been very, very intimidating even if familiar with the basic flight controls.

    • Watch the above CNN video – at around 0:45, an off-duty controller who was called in to assist was a CFI with 1,200 hours – but none in a Caravan. (He had to download a picture of the panel in order to walk the very newbe pilot through the controls.)

      Sounds like the report you read may have conflated the two.

  2. My gut told me something is fishy. But like the previous comments we don’t know yet and don’t want to add to the frenzy:

    1) Pax is very calm during his initial call and throughout the exchanges with ATC. He just could be a cool cat, but he seems nonchalant when describing the pilot as not responsive. There isn’t even a slightly elevated pitch of concern in his voice which struck me as strange

    2) The 208, while being a high-wing Cessna, isn’t a 172 and for a total newbie to keep things level AND land as well as he did is too good to be true.

    Apologies to him and kudos if this is all legit, I’m not so convinced.

  3. The passenger who landed the airplane seemed to handle the radios pretty well, knowing how to key the mic to avoid cutting off his words, use of the phonetic alphabet and the airplane’s registration, read the altimeter, etc. I’ve heard pilots who should know much better say “10/4” on frequency. It may be that the person flying just wasn’t familiar with the integrated transponder and comm tuning in the G1000 system likely installed in the Caravan. The smooth, even 270 degree descending turn to align with the runway seen on flight tracking looked pretty good too. The rise of the YouTube Pilot makes me skeptical.

    All the more kudos if the passenger had no flying experience. Maybe he flew smaller airplanes, or has a lot of Flight Sim time or something. If all is as presented this was an amazing save.

  4. Maybe the pilot gave his passenger an excellent safety briefing…? Speaking of the pilot, all mention of him has disappeared. I hope he is able to recover – sounds like he suffered a stroke, from the “incoherent” comment.

  5. Walk yourself through what this non-pilot allegedly did? Let’s say the last 10 minutes. I would hazard to guess pretty much everyone here understands the dynamics in play during the last 10 minutes of flight and you’re telling me this guy found an airport put a Caravan down on the runway in what appears to be a damn good landing. 😱 I wonder how much off centerline he was? Very fishy… very very fishy…🤔 I don’t buy it. I just don’t. To many things of pure chance have to come together to achieve the resultant outcome. Way, way to many.

  6. Aren’t we a jaded bunch. Too bad even general aviation has completely lost our innocence.
    I too think the guy was way too calm on the radio and keeping the airplane straight down the runway without knowing about the brakes is… well…

  7. 1) I’m saddened to see AvWeb use a link from disgraceful CNN. AvWeb, you can do better.

    2) About 40 years ago, I was flying somewhere over northern OH. Even tho it wasn’t fashionable back then, I was guarding 121.5. A woman’s panicked voice came over the radio. The pilot had slumped over in flight. (I don’t know how she knew to come up on 121.5. But this wasn’t a stunt.)

    The Controller found a Mooney on IFR nearby (thankfully it was a VFR day) who agreed to be vector’d to the plane. He flew loose formation with her and steered her toward final to some airport.

    I was waiting to hear how they were going to talk her through a landing. Fortunately, the pilot revived on long final. (I remember the Controller saying “I’m can’t tell you how glad I am to hear your voice.”)

    Apparently they landed safely. I never heard a new report about the almost-accident.

    3) Most of us Instructors probably fantasize about successfully talking someone down in a similar situation. It’s not very easy.

    Later in life, I tried to teach a few wives to land (in 3 hours) via the “Pitch Hitter” program. What a disaster. It would have been better if I had taught them to solo in 8. (I wouldn’t have lessons on Preflight; very little Practice area stuff (no stalls), no steep turns; etc. Mostly pattern work.)

    Even when you’re sitting in the left seat, telling a neophyte what to do in real time, the best that one can hope for is a controlled crash that’s survivable. And that’s in the best conditions: super long wide runway (2 miles), no cross wind, no gusts, no night approaching, etc.

    4) “I have no idea how to stop the airplane.”

    This is exactly what I thought about when I started thinking “How would I handle this?.”

    First, trying to teach someone over the radio how to use brakes and rudder pedals to steer ain’t going to work. (It takes most new students about 5 to 10 minutes to get the hang of it during a first lesson.) So you’re going to have to have a Pitch Hitter land without steering and braking.

    But, second, if they don’t know how to shut off the engine, the airplane might idle down the runway forever.

    Even today, the Pitch Hitter syllabus only says to “close the throttle.”
    aopa.org/-/media/Files/AOPA/Home/Training-and-Safety/Safety-Spotlights/Pinch-Hitter/PH-Syllabus-2020.pdf I think it better to have them shut the fuel off on short final, to help avoid a fire.

    I’ve never flown a Caravan, so had to read about how to turn off the fuel. Okay, a well thought out airplane, easy for pilots. But how to you talk someone about how to move the lever past the detent? (Do you flick left or right?) And do you brief them about this on final (where they will forget, just as I forgot to pull the fake ripcord on my first parachute jump), or once on the runway?

    Apparently the Pitch Hitter here managed to turn the fuel off, because the prop is stopped in the footage.

    Maybe the Controller told him. (I haven’t heard the whole tape.) But if he didn’t, then this story sounds too good to be true.

      • Yeah. While the Pinch Hitter (thanks for pointing out my mistake on the earlier misspelling – I don’t follow baseball and have been calling it “Pitch Hitter” since Day One) is a nice thought, it’s not really practical. As you pointed out, the pilot’s body might be jamming the controls. And I don’t know how to simulate that.

        And even if I had managed to teach someone how to land competently, they would probably forget it all as quickly as they learned it, since they didn’t review it periodically.

  8. I see two issues here,

    1 – Another incident where the pilot simply passes out. Too many accidents looking back the last year with no real explanation why they got incapacitated. The Vaccination with Thrombosis as one of the most common “side affects” may to be blamed here. I know more people suffering from side affects than of people who suffered from the actual C.

    2 – Without having the full conversation to follow, it is impossible to tell what really went on. Most likely the Caravan was on autopilot. With a good instructor / controller, using the heading bug, the altitude hold diengaged and carefully managing the power, I could see how to get a caravan down on a big airport.

    Autolanding with autopilot and Garmin equipment is already a reality with more complex aircraft. The 208 more or less slammed on the runway and it will need a nose gear inspection after this high speed touch down with no flaps. Future will show if this was just another stunt or a real emergency. Hope to hear about how the pilot is doing and what the cause of his “passing out” was.

    • Yeah but how long does it take to explain the autopilot, heading bug, turning it? Just think about asking a non-pilot (or even a pilot who only knows steam) to confirm what mode it’s in. There’s just too much to explain over the radio/telephone. How did he hook up the telephone to the audio system? I wanna believe but it’s very hard too. Can’t wait for Bertorelli to get a video of this up in the site.

  9. IF this were a setup, on paper they picked the right plane- single lever, stable, fixed gear.

    Out of the spotlight and nameless sadly sounds fishy for the “untrained pilot” who could use radios, upset recover a big high-wing and land in less than an hour undamaged.

    “10-4” could be a great cover. Had a blind “date” once where I was pretending to NOT be a pilot on a “discovery” flight- it was hard to pretend how to not taxi when offerred- had to cover by swiping the mixture and kill the engine.

    Will Cessna/Textron pay him for the “Discovery Flight”?

    FOIA the cell phone conversation context- as an instructor it impresses me they were able to get on a runway undamaged- C208 pilots thoughts?

    Props to the controller.

  10. Well, it looks like Darren Harrison, a cool and collected passenger with no flight experience, and air-traffic controller/CFI Robert Morgan, gathered effectively to a safe landing. Congratulations to all for the save. Finita la speculazione!