Pilots are a special group of people—that’s something I’ve always known. And pilot training does much to teach and reinforce such traits as courage, decisiveness, and the ability to remain calm in a crisis. But it was really brought home to me yesterday when I heard the story of a low-time single-engine pilot who safely landed a King Air carrying his wife and two daughters when the pilot of the charter flight died shortly after takeoff.
Doug White and his family had just attended his brother’s funeral in Florida when they boarded the chartered King Air bound for their Louisiana home. But about 15 minutes after takeoff, the King Air pilot lost consciousness and died. White told his wife and children to pray, and contacted air traffic control for help. White isn’t instrument rated and the plane was above a cloud layer and climbing on autopilot when he took the controls.
Air traffic controllers provided guidance and vectors, and enlisted the assistance of another pilot who was familiar with the airplane to give White the information he needed to take the aircraft off autopilot and hand fly it to a safe landing. And, of course, you can hear it all on the air traffic control tapes.
The thing that struck me the most about this incredible exchange between White and controllers is the calm decisiveness of everyone involved. It’s hard to imagine a more stressful situation. Lives were on the line, and everyone knew it. But even so, no one succumbed to the strain. Everyone worked together to get that plane, and the family in it, safely on the ground.
AOPA’s Aviation eBrief was among the first aviation media to report the story yesterday afternoon. You can read the story and listen to the remarkable exchange between White and air traffic control by visiting the eBrief archive. I am sure you will be moved as I was.
Situations like this one are rare, and they test the mettle of everyone involved—yet in these exceptional and difficult circumstances, pilots and controllers call on their inner strength and their rigorous training to work together for a good outcome. I couldn’t be more impressed with White and the controllers who helped him. Thankfully few of us will ever face such a challenge, but if we do we can have confidence in our training and the professionalism of controllers to help get us through.