Passenger who landed plane after pilot fell ill describes heroic landing: ‘Do what you have to or you’re gonna die’

·6-min read

Darren Harrison was barefoot, relaxing in the back of a one-engine plane as he travelled home to see his seven-months-pregnant wife, when his pilot fell ill midair – setting into motion a heroic series of events that could be straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster.

The Florida resident, 38, knew that it would be up to him to land the aircraft carrying the pilot, the pilot’s friend and himself.

“You do what you have to do to control the situation, or you’re gonna die,” Mr Harrison told NBC’s Today in an exclusive interview less than a week after the hair-raising flight from the Bahamas. “And that’s what I did.”

It all began when the pilot shifted in his seat, complaining of a headache and fuzziness, Mr Harrison said – bringing to life one of his personal worst fears.

“My nightmare’s always been, when I get on flights like this: What happens if something health-wise happens to the pilot? What’s gonna happen?” he told Today, adding that he’d considered the possibility “many a time”.

When the terrifying situation actually did happen, the pilot became unresponsive within seconds – and Mr Harrison sprung into action.

“I moved to the front, and by the time I had moved forward to the front of the airplane, I realised that we had now gone into a dive at a very fast rate,” Mr Harrison said Monday. “All I saw, when I came up to the front, was water out the right window – and I knew it was coming quick.”

The plane was in a nosedive, he said.

The small aircraft landed at Palm Beach on Tuesday (Jeff Chandler / WPBF-TV / Twitter)
The small aircraft landed at Palm Beach on Tuesday (Jeff Chandler / WPBF-TV / Twitter)

“At that point, I knew if I didn’t react that we would die.”

Reaching across the unresponsive pilot, Mr Harrison “grabbed the controls to the airplane and slow started to pull back on the stick and turn,” he said – citing “common sense” as what drove his decisions.

He had no flight experience; Mr Harrison works in flooring.

“I knew if I went up and yanked that the airplane would stall, and I also knew, at the rate we were going, we were probably going way too fast and it’d rip the wings off the airplane,” he told Today.

Maneuvering into the pilot’s seat, he attempted to put on the headset the unconscious man had been wearing – only to make another horrifying discovery. The wires were frayed and the plugs at the end of the headphones were gone, he said.

“So I immediately turn to the guy next to me and say, ‘I’m gonna need your headset because I’ve got to talk to somebody.”

That somebody turned out to be air traffic controller Robert Morgan, who luckily also happens to be a part-time flight instructor.

“All my GPS’s have gone out; I have no idea where I am,” Mr Harrison said Monday, adding that air traffic control asked him: “Well, what do you see?”

“I see the state of Florida, and I see a small airport – and they said, ‘Can you drop to 5,000 feet and maintain?’ And I said, ‘I can try ... I’m still trying to figure this thing out’.”

When he identified the state, Mr Harrison said, “at that second, I knew: I’m going to land there.

“I don’t know what the outcome’s gonna be, I don’t know how it’s gonna happen, but I”m gonna have to land this airplane, because there’s no other outcome.”

Air traffic controller Robert Morgan poses for a picture with the passenger that he helped land a Cessna Grand Caravan (WPBF)
Air traffic controller Robert Morgan poses for a picture with the passenger that he helped land a Cessna Grand Caravan (WPBF)

Under the guidance of Mr Morgan on the ground, Mr Harrison began his descent to Palm Beach International airport.

“He kept telling me the whole time, ‘The runway’s gonna keep getting bigger as you get closer to it; just keep focused on that, and just keep descending,” Mr Harrison said in the Monday interview. “And I remember getting to around 200 feet, and he said: ‘Hey, you’re gonna need to slow down some more; you’re still coming in pretty fast.’

“And at that point, I told the other guy, I said, ‘Hey - take the throttle and dump it on the floor. Just dump it on the floor as far as it’ll go.’”

Astonishingly, as air traffic control looked on, the first-time pilot with no experience touched down safely on the PBI runway, “feathered the brakes” and even offered to park the aircraft, remaining incredibly calm.

“I said, ‘Thank you for everything,’ and I threw the headset on the dash and said the biggest prayer I’ve ever said in my lifle,” Mr Harrison told Today. “That’s when all the emotion set in.”

The prayer, he said, was thankful “for the safety and everything that had 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 rushed to the hospital and was initially not expected to live, Mr Harrison said – but, in yet another miraculous development, should be sent home from the hospital soon, the passenger told Today.

Air traffic controller Robert Morgan explains how he guided an airplane passenger with no flight experience through an emergency landing (WPBF)
Air traffic controller Robert Morgan explains how he guided an airplane passenger with no flight experience through an emergency landing (WPBF)

Mr Harrison’s first call was to his wife, Brittney, who panicked when she saw his name on the caller ID, realising he should still be in the air and worrying that something bad had happened. She was still reeling from the death last year of her brother-in-law who passed away when her sister was six months pregnant.

“Honestly, I took a deep breath and prepared myself for it to not be him on the other line,” she said.

Instead, her husband was alive and well with an incredible story to tell.

In his own mind while he was up in the air, Mr Harrison said he “knew I wasn’t going to die - and the thought never crossed my mind to call and tell my wife bye.”

He said: “One of hte first things that went through my mind, as I was climbing to the front and that plane was in a dive, I was just looking, going, ‘I can’t die today. I’ve got Brittney [who’s] pregnant; I’ve got a baby on the way. Not day. Today’s not my day.”

Along with his own common sense, Mr Harrison gives most of the credit to a higher power.

“Everybody was asking me, ‘How did the airplane do what it did? How did it stay together? How did you pull it out?’” Mr Harrison said on Today. “The hand of God was on that plane. That’s the only thing I can attribute it to, no other explanation for it.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting