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A passenger makes an emergency airplane landing in Florida

In this still image from video by WPTV shows emergency personnel surrounding a Cessna plane at Palm Beach International Airport on Tuesday.
In this still image from video by WPTV shows emergency personnel surrounding a Cessna plane at Palm Beach International Airport on Tuesday.

Just after noon on Tuesday, the air traffic control tower at Florida's Treasure Coast airport in Fort Pierce got an unusual call.

"I've got a serious situation here. My pilot has gone incoherent. And I have no idea how to fly the airplane," said the man, according to recordings of the air traffic control call.

Thirty frantic minutes later — with the help of multiple air traffic controllers around West Palm Beach, Fla. — the plane and its passengers were safely on the ground in a remarkable and unusual emergency landing.

The passenger who made the landing has not been publicly identified. In the recordings, he says several times that he does not know how to operate the Cessna Caravan aircraft, although his conversations with controllers indicate some familiarity with technical aviation terms.

"Luckily the passenger flying has been around aviation a little bit. But he wasn't a pilot and didn't really have any flying experience," said Robert Morgan, the Palm Beach International air traffic controller who helped him land the single-engine turboprop, in an interview with local TV station CBS 12.

The plane departed from the Bahamas just before 11 a.m. for what should have been a short and uneventful flight to Treasure Coast.

But with about 70 miles to go, flight logs show the plane beginning to deviate from its steady altitude and speed. Then, the plane takes a hard left turn, flying south parallel to the Florida coast, gently lifting back above 9,000 feet. The first call to air traffic control came afterward.

Asked what his location was, the passenger responded: "I have no idea. I see the coast of Florida in front of me, and I have no idea."

"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," the controller said. "Just try to follow the coast either north- or southbound. We're trying to locate you."

As the plane headed toward the coast near Boca Raton, air traffic control at Palm Beach cleared the runways.

And Morgan – who also has experience as a flight instructor – was called in from his break to help the passenger land safely, he said. He had never flown the Cessna, but used a picture of the cockpit to help coach the passenger through the landing.

"Before I knew it, he said, 'I'm on the ground, how do I turn this thing off?'" Morgan said, speaking to WPBF, another local station. "He told me that he couldn't wait to get home and hug his pregnant wife."

The plane landed just after 12:30 p.m. local time. Video shows a bumpy but safe landing.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.