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Heroic Controllers Coach Passenger to Safe Landing After Pilot's Mid-Air Death - (4/13/2009)

CONTACTS:  Miami Center Representative Steve Wallace, 954-401-1348; NATCA National Office, Alexandra Caldwell, 202-220-9813, acaldwell@natcadc.org

MIAMI/FORT MYERS, Fla. – In what can only be called an Easter miracle several air traffic controllers in Southern Florida were able to guide a plane to a successful landing after its pilot fell unconscious and a passenger had to fly the aircraft – all during a heavy traffic push due to the holiday and good weather.

Said NATCA President Patrick Forrey:  “If you were to ask any one of the controllers who worked this event about what happened over the skies of South Florida they would tell you that it was just a typical day at the office and that it was merely their job however, the actions they all took to save the passengers aboard the flight were beyond heroic.  They all went above and beyond the call of duty and it is times like these that I hope the flying public can see the invaluable lifeline that controllers provide every day – and particularly in emergency situations.  These men and women are true heroes and I’m proud to be in the same profession as them”.

At approximately 1:30 p.m. on Sunday a Super King Air two-engine turboprop aircraft, N559DW, carrying four passengers flying from Marco Island, Fla. to Jackson, Miss. entered into the jurisdiction of air traffic control at Miami Center – the facility responsible for high-altitude air traffic in both Southern Florida and the Caribbean.  A controller at the center tried twice to acknowledge the aircraft’s presence and issue climb instructions, waiting for a read-back. 

The transmission that then came from N559DW was a passenger stating that the pilot was unconscious and that they needed help immediately. From that point forward every controller working in that jurisdiction area began to lighten the load of the two controllers who began to work the incident – one of whom was called in because of her extensive pilot experience.

The passenger who radioed in was a private pilot, but was only certified in single-engine aircraft and had never flown a King Air.  He informed air traffic control that the autopilot was on and that it was continuing to climb the aircraft from 10,000 feet.  He then informed air traffic control that he needed to know how to take the plane off autopilot and how to land, then informing them that it appeared that the pilot had passed away.

A third controller at Miami Center stepped in to coordinate the rerouting of all aircraft in that area and transmitted emergency information to those at Ft. Myers International Airport.  The controller with pilot-experience talked to the passenger to help him fly the plane and another controller worked traffic in the same area – all three working on the same radio frequency.

Quickly developing a system that enabled them to effectively share the frequency they would tap one’s shoulder to transfer and relinquish control on the radio channel.  One would advise the passenger and then another would issue control instructions to other aircraft.

Due to the hard work of the controllers and the expertise that the one had in flying aircraft the passenger was able to get the plane off autopilot and steer the aircraft toward Ft. Meyers International Airport, transferring control to the controllers who worked that airspace.

The controllers at Ft. Meyers then took over the flight.  One called a friend who was certified in the King Air for advice.  When the friend had gotten out his flight checklists, manuals and cockpit layout sheets he was able to issue instructions through the controller to another controller who then relayed that information to the passenger flying the plane.

Because of this quick thinking the passenger-turned-pilot was able to safely land the aircraft on the first try.


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