A Florida man with no flying experience who kept his composure when landing a small plane said “the hand of God” was with him after the pilot collapsed at the controls.
Darren Harrison told NBC’s “Today” that he was relaxing his feet on the back of the single-engine Cessna after a fishing trip in the Bahamas when the pilot told him and another passenger: ” Guys, I have to tell you that I don’t feel well.
“He said, ‘I have a headache, I’m confused and I don’t feel well,’ the 39-year-old flooring salesman said. “And I said, ‘What should we TO DO ?’ and at that time he did not respond at all.
Harrison climbed into the cockpit and saw the plane was diving, and fast.
“All I saw when I got to the front was water out the right hand window and I knew it was going to happen fast. At that moment I knew if I did not react, we would die.
Harrison said he reached over the unconscious pilot and grabbed the controls, slowly pulling the stick back to level the plane. It was a common sense decision, he said.
“I knew if I got in and shot it, the plane would stall,” he said. “And I also knew that at the rate we were going, we were going way too fast, and it would probably rip the wings off the plane.”
This, he said, was “the scariest part of the whole story”.
With the help of the other passenger – a friend of the pilot, he said – they moved him out of the pilot’s seat. Harrison jumped up and put the headphones on, only to find the wires were frayed and the plug was missing. So he took the other passenger’s helmet.
He joined an air traffic controller in Florida. When asked if he knew the plane’s position, Harrison replied that the GPS was off, so he had no idea.
According to Flight Aware, the plane took off earlier Tuesday from Marsh Harbor International Airport in the Bahamas.
The air traffic controller then asked what he could see.
“I see the state of Florida and I see a small airport,” Harrison told him.
At this point, he refused to let fear set in.
“When I was flying and saw the state of Florida, in that second I knew I was going to land there,” he said. “I don’t know what the outcome will be, I don’t know how it’s going to be, but I knew I’m going to have to land that plane because there’s no other option.”
Harrison said he was due to return home with his wife Britney, who is seven months pregnant with their first child.
“People said what if you crashed and died? You could have at least called her, you could have contacted her, you had time,” Harrison said. “In my mind, I knew I wasn’t going to die, and the thought never crossed my mind to call and say goodbye to my wife.”
Air traffic controller Robert Morgan, who coached Harrison for a safe landing at Palm Beach International Airport, told him the runway would appear larger and larger as he approached.
At about 200 feet, Harrison said Morgan told him he needed to slow down.
“At that point, I said to the other guy, hey, take the accelerator and throw him on the floor. Just throw him on the floor as far as you can,” Harrison said.
The plane landed safely.
“I said thank you for everything and threw the helmet on the dash and said the biggest prayer I’ve ever said in my life,” Harrison recalled.
“That’s when all the emotion set in,” he added.
He said he offered a “grateful prayer for safety and all that happened. But the last part of the prayer and the strongest part was for the guy in the back because I knew it was not a good situation.
The pilot was taken to hospital and is expected to be released early this week, Harrison said.
Harrison then called his wife, who did not expect to hear from him so soon. She said her sister was six months pregnant when her husband died last year, “so honestly I took a deep breath and prepared myself that it wouldn’t be him on the other line”.
“I was like, ‘God, we can’t do it again. I don’t think I could do it again. And luckily, we didn’t have to.