Just after noon on Tuesday, a passenger flying in a single-engine plane about 20 miles east of Boca Raton, Fla., radioed air-traffic control.
“I’ve got a serious situation here. My pilot has gone incoherent,” the man said, adding from about 9,000 feet up that he had “no idea how to fly the airplane.”
The passenger, who did not identify himself in the exchange archived on LiveATC.net, told the control tower that he was not sure where he was — only that he could “see the coast of Florida in front of me.”
From a tower in Fort Pierce, about 75 miles north of Boca Raton, the air traffic controller asked the passenger to reiterate his situation. The passenger repeated that the pilot was incoherent: “He is out.”
For about the next five minutes, the air traffic controller instructed the passenger on how to keep the plane stable and begin making a descent.
“Try to hold the wings level and see if you can start descending for me,” the controller said. “Push forward on the controls and descend at a very slow rate.”
At points, the passenger remarked on how little he knew about the airplane he was flying.
“I can’t even get my [navigation] screen to turn on,” he said. “It has all the information on it. You guys got any ideas on that?”
Throughout much of the exchange, however, his voice remained relatively calm, even as he said things like, “I have no idea how to stop the airplane. I don’t know how to do anything.”
The tower eventually connected the passenger to air traffic controllers in Palm Beach County. They guided him to the Palm Beach International Airport, where the man successfully landed the plane.
A Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said in a statement to The Washington Post that the plane identified in the recordings, a Cessna 208 registered to an address in Connecticut, landed in Palm Beach County around 12:30 p.m. Tuesday following a “possible pilot medical issue.” Two people were on board, the spokesman said, adding that the agency “will investigate.” The FAA did not identify the pilot or the passenger.
The plane had taken off just before 11 a.m. from Marsh Harbour in the Bahamas, according to the flight tracker FlightAware.
The Cessna 208 is a single-engine propeller plane measuring nearly 38 feet long and 15 feet tall, with a 52-foot wingspan, according to its manufacturer. It can be used to transport passengers and cargo. It can also be outfitted to land on water.
Just after 12:30 p.m., according to a recording captured by LiveATC.net, which archives air-traffic communications, a controller at the Palm Beach International Airport remarked on the passenger’s landing of the plane.
“No flying experience,” the controller said. “We got a controller that worked them down that’s a flight instructor.”
JetBlue pilot Justin Dalmolin told WPBF, which first reported the story, that he had to wait to land his plane as air traffic controllers guided the Cessna’s passenger into the airport. What the passenger did was no easy feat, Dalmolin told the station.
“The level of difficulty that this person had to deal with in terms of having zero flight time to fly and land a single engine turbine aircraft is absolutely incredible,” Dalmolin said, adding: “I remember my first days when I first started flight training I was white-knuckled and sweating.”