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“I’ve got a serious situation here,” the passenger, later identified as Darren Harrison, said on Tuesday afternoon, according to audio on LiveATC.net, a website that broadcasts and archives air traffic controller communications.
“My pilot has gone incoherent. I have no idea how to fly the airplane.”
An air traffic controller in Fort Pierce responded, asking if he knew the position of the single-engine Cessna 280.
“I have no idea. I can see the coast of Florida in front of me, and I have no idea,” Harrison said.
According to US flight tracker Flight Aware, the plane had taken off earlier on Tuesday local time from Marsh Harbour International Airport in the Bahamas.
As the plane flew over Florida, the controller, speaking very calmly, told Harrison to “maintain wings level and try to follow the coast, either north or southbound.” Twin controls enable a Cessna 280 to be steered from the passenger seat.
Minutes passed before controllers were able to locate the plane, which by then was heading north over Boca Raton.
Then the man’s voice seemed to fade, so the controller in Fort Pierce asked for the passenger’s cellphone number to enable controllers at Palm Beach International Airport to communicate with him more clearly.
Air traffic controller Robert Morgan, a 20-year veteran, took over at that point, talking the passenger down to a safe landing.
“Kudos to the new pilot,” one controller told him after the plane smoothly wheeled down the tarmac.
Morgan told television station WPBF he felt like he was in the right place at the right time.
“I knew the plane was flying like any other plane. I just had to keep him calm, point him to the runway and just tell him how to reduce the power so he could descend to land. It felt really good to help someone,” Morgan said.
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US Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Rick Breitenfeldt confirmed that the pilot and passenger were the only two people aboard. The agency is investigating, he said in an email. There was no immediate word on the condition of the pilot and authorities did not release their identities.