WEST PALM BEACH — What could have been a deadly nightmare for a pilot and two passengers turned into an "epic" story Tuesday when a man with no flight experience successfully landed a small plane at Palm Beach International Airport after the plane's pilot became incapacitated, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The nine-seater Cessna 208 Caravan was on the way back from The Bahamas just before noon when the pilot told his passengers he wasn’t feeling well. He fell against the controls, putting the aircraft into a nosedive and sharp turn, according to the FAA.
Instead of panicking at 10,000 feet, one of the passengers grabbed the controls and called into Fort Pierce Air Traffic Control as the plane was about 30 miles offshore.
"I've got a serious situation here. My pilot has gone incoherent. I have no idea how to fly the airplane but I am maintaining (at) 9,100 (feet)," the passenger told Fort Pierce air traffic control around 11:21 a.m.
After locating the plane, PBIA air traffic controller Robert Morgan was in the passenger's ear and directing him to the ground. A 20-year veteran of air traffic control and a flight instructor himself, Morgan was reportedly called in from his lunch break to help the passenger make sense of the plane's controls.
“We’ve never had anything like that…I felt like I was in a movie,” Morgan told the FAA. “Everybody wanted to participate, and came out of the offices to assist in any kind of way.”
Miracle landing Palm Beach: Talking the passenger through the plane's complicated navigation system
Morgan said his first instructions were for the passenger to make a slow turn to the north, noting that the shoreline is going to be on the right.
"He (the passenger) lined himself up with the runway without too much help on my part," Morgan said, adding that with the help of a fellow passenger, he found the speed indicator.
"We need to slow you down some," Morgan said but he had never flown the plane. He was fairly certain that the brakes were on top of the rudder pedal. He was right.
Morgan saw the altitude drop from 1,000 feet to 600 feet and then to 300 feet. He got nervous when the plane disappeared off radar. He remembers telling the passenger that the runway was going to look bigger.
"Before I knew it, he was on the ground."
Morgan and the passenger successfully touched the plane down at PBIA at 12:37 p.m.
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The two passengers and pilot have not been named publicly.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office has not released information on the pilot's condition, but footage from the landing shows an ambulance left the scene on the runway with its lights activated.
"Bobby was able to use his Air Traffic Control skills and flying skills to guide this passenger to Palm Beach International Airport and land safely," Morgan's wife Michelle posted on Facebook. "Prayers for the pilot. I thank God Bobby was able to help these men."
Miracle landing at PBIA: What we know about the plane
The plane involved in Tuesday's incident is registered to Beach Amphibian, LLC of East Haven, Conn. That company has owned the plane since 2015.
The Cessna 208 Caravan is often used by commuter airlines, charter services and flight training.
Dick Erler is the chief flight instructor for Monarch Air, a flight training school based in Addison, Te. His company specializes in Cessna airplanes.
“This is pretty much a miracle,” said Erler, who noted that what happened at Palm Beach Airport has been the topic of discussion throughout the day in the aviation industry. “Both the passenger and the air traffic controller are true heroes.”
It takes hours and hours of training to be able to fly a Cessna 208, Erler noted.
“To land that plane without knowing anything about it is incredible. And the air traffic controller deserves all the credit in the world.”
Miracle landing at PBIA: What we know about the flight path
Flight tracking data shows the Cessna originally took off from Lake Wales Municipal Airport, about 26 miles southeast of Lakeland, at 8:15 a.m. Tuesday before briefly stopping at Treasure Coast International Airport.
The plane went on to the Leonard M. Thompson International Airport, known as the Marsh Harbour Airport, located in a town in the Abaco Islands in The Bahamas, where it stayed for just 39 minutes, potentially to pick up the passengers, before starting the flight back to Fort Pierce.
But the plane never made it back to Fort Pierce.
Flightpath data shows the plane made a sharp turn south about 30 miles southeast of Fort Pierce when it was flying at about 12,000 feet. That could have been when the passenger radioed into the Fort Pierce Air Traffic Control tower.
Controller Christopher Flores at Fort Pierce Tower tried to locate the plane. Operational supervisor Justin Boyle and Palm Beach operations supervisor Joshua Somers rushed to provide help in tracking it while Flores instructed the man to fly straight ahead and to start a gradual descent.
The team located the plane approximately 20 miles from Boca Raton Airport over the Atlantic Airport. Instead of landing there, Morgan guided the passenger to the Palm Beach Airport because it has a longer runway, was less congested, and had adequate radio coverage.
"Morgan walked the passenger through turns, selecting flap settings needed to create enough lift at slower speeds and trim (to alleviate pressure from the control surfaces during flap extension) and explaining how to land. He then made sure the passenger had the Palm Beach runway in sight," according to the FAA release.
The unsuspecting pilot did not know how to stop the plane, so Morgan instructed him how to brake and adjust levers.
Miracle landing at PBIA: 'Oh my gosh... that was a great job'
As the plane landed at PBIA just after 12:30 p.m., commercial planes were delayed to keep the runway clear. Air traffic control told an American Airlines pilot nearby to hold off approaching runway 10L.
"It's gonna be a couple minutes. You just witnessed a couple passengers land that plane. ... Man they did a great job," the air traffic controller said.
"Did you say the passengers landed the airplane?" the pilot asked. Upon confirmation, he added "Oh my gosh... that was a great job."
"No flight experience. We got a controller who worked them down. I think he is a flight instructor," the air traffic controller said of Morgan.
"Epic," the American Airlines pilot responded.
Emergency medical services and the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office assisted the original pilot. Neither of the passengers had any injuries, according to the FAA.
“At the end of the day, I feel like I was just doing my job,” air traffic controller Morgan said, “But it was like on a higher level than you thought you’d have to do it.”
Katherine Kokal is a journalist covering northern Palm Beach County and Mike Diamond covers Palm Beach County government and transportation. You can reach them at email@example.com and at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Airplane emergency landing in Florida after pilot is incapacitated