Calm in a Crisis

April 14, 2009 by Craig Fuller

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.

  • Alex Kovnat

    In case I ever find myself in the front seat of an airplane and the pilot has a heart attack: Where in southeastern Michigan can I find a pinch-hitter course and how much does it cost?

  • Robert Bennett

    Given the usual expertise noted in media reports on aviation incidents, I fully expect to hear some media reporter ask why this SEL qualified pilot did not just shut down one of the engines and fly it as a single.

  • http://aopa Raymond John Klein

    Today we use the word HERO so much that it has lost it’s impact in our daily lives. This story of professionalism and courage reastablishes the definition of the word. Doug White and the ATC controllers and King Air pilot involved in this emergency are to be commended. Training and professionalism were key in the outcome of this scenerio. This is General Aviation in America! Good form Doug, congratulations. Raymond John Klein AOPA# 05362339

  • Mike Cagley

    I have listened to the recording of the air/ground communication during this flight and would like to offer a comment. As a low time SEL pilot myself I was struck by professionalism of the radio technique of the substitute pilot under a very stressful circumstance. He is a credit to his instructor and he obviously learned what he was taught. His questions about air speeds, flap settings, gear extension and the auto pilot were timely and spot on. Well done!

  • http://www.livingpictures/flightsimulator.htm Paul Smyres

    What a great story. As a student pilot I’ve often fantasized about what I would or could do in a similar situation, unlikely as that may be. As part of training I highly recommend using a full flight simulator with pedals and yoke. Today’s home simulators are fantastic, even compared to FAA certified simulators of only 20 years ago. I’ve now “flown” over 135 different aircraft, using real weather, real charts, and I know all the instruments and ILS procedures even though I’m far from instrument rated yet in real aircraft. I’ve “flown” from over 500 airports around the world, all kinds of conditions, snow, rain, fog, mountains. If I ever get into a situation like the one in the story, I think I could handle it, especially with ATC professionals. My work is aerial photography.

  • Terry Gaus

    Doug White (the King Air’s owner) needs a pilot to replace Joe Cabuk, the individual who tragically died at the controls on Easter Sunday. Kari Sorenson (Danbury, CT) – the laid-off corporate pilot who provided the essential information to Doug via ATC to successfully land the bird – needs a job. Sounds like a match made in heaven. Terry Gaus AOPA #728075

  • Maurice Cote

    My condoleances to Mr Cabuk’s family ! Kudos to all involved in the smooth landing of that King Air particularly the cool headed controllers who never get enough recognition for the wonderful work that they do day in and day out. This is quite the story of decision making at its best . I think Mr Whyte did a tremendous job in keeping his cool in time of adversity and he with the help of professionnals on the ground are people to be rekonned with. Congratulations to AOPA for publishing such events.
    P.S. I have quite a few hours of flying myself and I really appreciate reading the facts about heroes like Mr Whyte as much as I did about ( Sully ) in the Hudson. So long Captainmoe AOPA since 1986

  • Mike Mordaunt

    I think all of us that have the aviation virus flowing through our veins were immediately transported into that cockpit with Doug as soon as we started to listen to the tape. The lesson to be learned here is not so much the technical skill required to fly a machine we are not familiar with, after all, it comes down to a little knobology, getting comfortable with the feel of the controls, and following the numbers, but the type of focus that this endeavor requires that we (as aviators) learn to employ. — As we listen to this scenario play out, it’s difficult to fully appreciate that Doug was juggling the emotional specters of dealing with the recent loss of his brother, a dead friend sitting next to him, two children that must have been traumatized beyond imagination, and a wife who’s mental stability was surely pushed to its absolute limit. And yet, the discipline of aviation protocol never wavered. This is truly one of the gifts that this passion of ours bestows on those of us who embrace it. Another great day for GA.

  • Rebekah Bartlett

    Through God’s good grace, what an awesome outcome to a bad situation! I have been closely reading everything in the news about this story ever since it happened. To me this is the kind of story that truely does make heroes out of all who were involved, as a few have already stated. Heroes are every day people when faced with insurmountable odds that take on the challenge head on and come out victorious. The fact that one of the air traffic controllers knew a guy that was a ex-King Air pilot, who answered his phone, and still had his King Air manuals nearby to me are just a couple of the side miracles that makes this one of the best stories I’ve heard in a while. It makes me glad to be a part of this aviation group. It is a great encouragement to strive for your very best, because you never know if you might have to face an emergency like this one. I am also a pilot with a mere 80 hours down and this story makes me want to strive even harder for the calling and dream I have had for a while now in regards to becoming a missionary pilot. What a great example these guys have set for us as a younger generation that’s just starting into aviation. Job well done to all involved- you have my respect. And to all the men and women involved in aviation whether on the ground or in the air, hats off to you guys for continuing to take your jobs and flying so seriously. Your professionalism is much admired and appreciated!!

  • David Slayter

    I would like to offer my congratulations and best wishes Mr. White and his family for surviving what could have been disaterous had he not been in the right seat to better himself as a pilot. He handled the situation with courage and discipline that not just anyone could pull off. I know from past experience that it is one thing to be somewhat removed from a situation when acting as a “first responder”, but totally different when loved ones are in danger. For Mr. White to remain calm knowing that his family was on board was a feat in itself and I applaud him with a standing ovation. I also offer my most sincere condolences to Mr. Joe Cabuk’s family for their loss. He was a great man and a great pilot. I knew Joe while working with him in 1994 when the FBO in Monroe whom he was a charter pilot for was known as “Fleeman Aviation.” I have often thought of days past and all of the dedicated and talented pilots I had the opportunity to meet and work with. May God continue to bless and keep the White family safe, and Mr. White’s (and all those who assisted) dilligence keep General Aviation going strong. A true insperation.

  • Alex Kovnat

    In contemplating the matter of a Cessna pilot taking over as pinch-hitter on a massive twin turboprop aircraft, a thought has occurred to me.

    Many pilot’s wives (and I suppose pilot’s husbands in some cases) have taken pinch-hitter courses on what to do if the pilot has a heart attack while a plane is airborne. I think its time also, for pilots to consider how they can make it easier for a non-pilot partner to survive and land a plane safely under such circumstances.

    The evening before last, I watched a video of Alan Klapmeier discussing the features of Cirrus single-engine piston planes. One of the features he mentions, is a button the pilot can push to put the plane on a level course, so as to make it easier to assess the situation and explore alternative courses of action if things go wrong.

    If that King Air were equipped with such a feature and if its pilot could have sensed he was having a heart attack and then pushed said button, it would have made it easier for the pinch-hitter to handle the situation. As it was, the latter was able to bring the plane under control although it was rapidly climbing at the time the pilot had that fatal heart attack.

    So while all non-pilot wives (and husbands in some cases, along with other family members) should have pinch-hitter training, perhaps pilots should be trained to put planes on a level course, using that feature I mentioned, or do so manually, to make it easier for someone to take over if health problems occur during flight.

  • Hunter Heath

    An inspiring story, indeed, once we get past the tragedy of the pilot’s sudden death. The media have confused things a bit– describing Mr. White merely as a “passenger” did not recognize the immense value of his having been trained as a private pilot. Make no mistake, if no one on board had been through pilot training, the chance of a successful outcome would have been much lower. Even Mr. White seems to have underrated himself– his new nickname perhaps should be “Cool Hand Luke!” I hope he is motivated to continue flying, including training in his company’s King Air.

  • Woody Cahall

    On your question about pinch hitter courses – Although pilot incapacitation in flight is very rare, the Pinch Hitter course is also valuable in increasing your awareness of what is happening in the aircraft and assisting with flight duties in aircraft flown by family and friends. The course is offered in two parts First is the ground school session that is available through the AOPA Air Safety Foundation at The second segment is the flying portion that is offered at certain AOPA events such as our annual Summit meeting (previously AOPA Expo). The majority of people who do the flight portion prefer to do visit a flight school near their home. Just stop in and let the instructor know that you’re interested in doing Pinch Hitter flight. There are a number of flight schools in your area – nearly every airport has at least one flight school. In south eastern Michigan try Monroe Aviation School of Flight. They can be reached at 734-384-9616 and are located at Custer (TTF) airport in Monroe, MI.

  • Rich Hartman

    This was surely a harrowing experience for all involved. The pilot and controllers did an awesome job. God bless all, and my personal congratulations.

    With no offense to all involved though, the word “hero” is somewhat overused in today’s society. We all know, that with enough time spent in the air, most aviators, at some time or another, handle similar, or even more threatening experiences during their private or professional careers. This is part of the risk we take getting into the front office of a hurtling machine.

    This man is a pilot, inexperienced maybe, but he did well…as his training and self control dictated. So did the controllers, for the same reasons. They all did their jobs. Period. no more, no less.

    Society and the media love the extremes, they throw words like hero around way too often, and weaken its meaning. They also bring unnecessary attention, pry into personal matters (who cares to whom the ship is registered), and increase the perceived risk which brings outside intervention to the aviation community. It also vexes me that much of the time they publish inaccurate facts ( what’s a King Air 55). Anyway Congratulations Mr. White.