At around noon on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, Robert Morgan, an air traffic controller at Palm Beach International Airport (PBIA) was on break outside the tower. He was reading a book when his co-worker began yelling to him. “There’s a passenger flying a plane that’s not a pilot and the pilot is incapacitated, so they said you need to help them try and land the plane,” Morgan recounted to CNN.
In addition to his 20 years of experience in the control tower, Morgan is a seasoned flight instructor with 1,200 hours of teaching under his belt. He immediately began formulating a plan for getting the plane down safely. “I knew the plane was flying like any other plane, I just had to keep him (the passenger) calm, point him to the runway, and just tell him how he could reduce the power so he could descend to land,” he says.
Inside the plane, a Cessna Grand Caravan, passenger Darren Harrison was at the controls. The flight was headed from the Bahamas when the pilot told his two passengers that he wasn't feeling well. He then “fell against the controls, putting the aircraft into a nosedive and sharp turn,” according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Harrison acted quickly, grabbing the controls, pulling the plane out of nosedive, and radioing air traffic control (ATC) in Fort Pierce. Controller Chip Flores talked Harrison through until radar showed the plane just off the coast of Boca Raton, which is when ATC and Morgan at PBIA took over.
Harrison told Morgan, “I don't know how to fly. I don't know how to stop this thing if I do get on the runway.” Even with the situation being so urgent, Harrison sounds completely calm in the audio. Morgan himself had never flown this model, so he used a photo of the plane's instrument panel to guide Harrison through the landing process, step by step: “Try to hold the wings level and see if you can start descending for me. Push forward on the controls and descend at a very slow rate.” Morgan made the decision to guide the aircraft to the area's largest airport, helping Harrison position the plane eight miles out from PBIA “just so he could have a really big target to aim at.”
Learning to land a plane is something that typically takes about 20 hours of training to learn with typical flight instruction—together, Morgan and Harrison landed it safely and smoothly.
“I felt like I was going to cry then, because I had so much adrenaline built up,” Morgan said afterward. He met Harrison on the tarmac, who gave him a big hug and said thank you. It was an emotional moment for both men. “He said that he just just wanted to get home to his pregnant wife,” says Morgan, a father of three himself. “And that felt even better. In my eyes, he was the hero. I was just doing my job.”
Together, air traffic controller Robert Morgan and flight passenger Darren Harrison safely landed a plane after the pilot was incapacitated.
Watch the CNN clip to hear from Morgan, as well as listen to parts of the audio recording of the correspondence.