How A Pilot's Death Created Heroes When the pilot of his plane died after takeoff last year, passenger Doug White took control and landed it with the help of air traffic controllers.

How A Pilot's Death Created Heroes

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Tomorrow, Doug White of Archibald, Louisiana will reunite with some of the people who helped him become a hero.

Mr. DOUG WHITE (Pilot): I got to declare emergency. My pilot's deceased and I'm a single...

HANSEN: It was Easter Sunday last year and Joe Cabuk, the pilot of a chartered plane carrying White and his family, suffered a heart attack and died in the cockpit soon after takeoff in Florida.

White is certified to fly single-engine planes but not the twin engine turbo prop he was aboard, but he took control anyway and with the help of air traffic controllers in Miami and Fort Myers, landed the aircraft safely. Those air traffic controllers won the Archie League Medal of Safety Award, given by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. When they receive that award tomorrow, Doug White will be there.

I'm joined now by Brian Norton, the air traffic controller who guided White to a safe landing in Fort Myers. He's at member station WGCU there. And welcome to the program, Brian.

Mr. BRIAN NORTON (Air Traffic Controller, Fort Myers, Florida): Hi. Good morning.

HANSEN: When did you first make contact with Mr. White?

Mr. NORTON: Well, it was at the end of my shift and I was going out the front door to go home. And my supervisor caught me just before I got out to the parking lot and said we had an emergency and the pilot needed to talk to a controller with a pilot's license.

HANSEN: Wow. I mean, all you had was the handoff from the Miami controllers and you didnt know much about the aircraft. Let's listen to one of your first interactions with him.

Mr. NORTON: Ten November Niner Delta Whiskey, are you using the autopilot or are you flying the airplane?

Mr. WHITE: Me and the good Lord are hand-flying this, Niner-Delta-Whiskey.

Mr. NORTON: Okay, very Good. Thank you.

Mr. WHITE: I need to slow my descent down. It's 2500 speed per minute here. I need to get my throttle set for this descent. I dont know where to set it at.

HANSEN: Now, Mr. White sounds very scared and you sound very calm. Were you frightened?

Mr. NORTON: Yes, I was. I was - when I realized it was a King Air, I was very concerned that I wouldnt be much help and I got pretty worried about that. And the target was fluctuating in altitude and airspeed, so I could tell he had a handful and he was trying to learn how to fly it pretty quick. So we were very concerned.

HANSEN: Wow. How difficult - I mean, you didnt know much about the King Air. But for a pilot who's certified to fly only single-engine planes, how difficult is it to fly and successfully land a twin-engine turbo prop? I mean, are the procedures or the controls radically different?

Mr. NORTON: I think its a very steep learning curve. I think it's a lot to learn really quick. I dont think I could do it myself. I wouldnt know where to start.

HANSEN: Really? And youre trying to talk somebody through it.

Mr. NORTON: Yeah, I was just trying to pass some good information from people -it took us a while to get some people on the line to find out what we needed to tell him. But I was just trying to pass that to him as clearly as I could.

HANSEN: Wow. I want to play another particularly chilling moment of the tape. This is happening as you were giving Doug White instructions for how to land the plane.

Mr. WHITE: When I touch down, if I ever touch down, do I just kill the throttle or what?

Mr. NORTON: That's correct. When you touch down, slowly kill the throttle.

Mr. WHITE: Got a dead pilot sitting beside me.

Mr. NORTON: Nine Delta Whiskey, you dont have to respond. More information: once you make it onto the ground, just centerline with the rotor pedals, you kill the throttle and maximum braking.

Mr. WHITE: (unintelligible).

HANSEN: Wow. What was going through your mind right then? I mean, here's the pilot saying, I got a dead pilot sitting beside me. You dont even react to that.

Mr. NORTON: No, I heard it clearly. I just didnt want to want to acknowledge it. I did my best to just keep talking to him and try to keep his head in the game. He was doing a really good job and I didnt want him to be distracted. And just thought, better not add to it, well just keep going with what's working here.

HANSEN: Well, Doug White landed safely. He and his family are just fine. Have you spoken to him since then?

Mr. NORTON: Yes, I've talked to him a couple times on the phone. A really nice guy. Got to meet him in person about a month ago. He flew down to Marco Island and stopped by the facility to say hi, and I really like him a lot. He's a really nice guy.

HANSEN: Nice to hear he's still flying.

Mr. NORTON: Fantastic.

HANSEN: Brian Norton is an FAA air traffic controller in Fort Myers, Florida. And he joined us from member station WGCU. Thank you very much.

Mr. NORTON: Thank you.

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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