Readers Digest
Magazine subscription Podcast

How one passenger learned to fly a plane at 3,000 metres

BY Robert Kiener

28th Feb 2023 Life

How one passenger learned to fly a plane at 3,000 metres

Plane passenger Darren Harrison gets an emergency flying lesson when his pilot passes out 3,000 metres above the ocean

The selfie Darren Harrison has just taken shows him dressed casually, in white shorts and a T-shirt, with his bare feet propped up on a plush grey leather seat. He is the lone passenger in the roomy six-seat cabin of a single-engine Cessna 208 turboprop, some 3,600 metres above the Atlantic, off the east coast of Florida.

He sends the photo to his wife, Brittney Harrison, who is six months pregnant with their first child. Harrison, a 39-year-old flooring-sales executive, is returning to his home in Lakeland, Florida, after taking part in an offshore deep-sea fishing tournament in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas.

It’s around noon. The weather on this morning in early May of 2022 is perfect, and the views—brilliant blue skies and crystalline ocean below—are captivatingly beautiful. 

The plane is being flown by Ken Allen, a 64-year-old veteran pilot. To Allen’s right, in the co-pilot’s seat, is his friend Russ Franck, 70. Franck’s no pilot, but he does enjoy going along for the ride.

"The weather is perfect, and the views are captivatingly beautiful"

Some 45 minutes into their scheduled 75-minute flight to Treasure Coast International Airport in Fort Pierce, Florida, air-traffic controllers in Miami clear Allen to begin his approach to Fort Pierce, which is now some 110 kilometres to the west. They instruct him to descend to 3,000 metres.

“November 333 Lima Delta. Roger, Miami Center,” says Allen, using the plane’s call sign. 

A few minutes later, as Allen continues his descent, the right side of his head starts pounding: Boom! Boom! Boom! Every time his heart beats, Allen feels as if his head is being hit with a hammer.

What the heck…? Allen wonders as he winces in pain. Out of his right eye, he begins seeing bright blue lights flashing.

“Guys, I don’t feel good!” he tells Harrison and Franck. The pain is severe. The pounding intensifies. His voice shaking, he says, “Everything is fuzzy!”

Harrison answers immediately, “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know. My head is killing me! I don’t…” Allen suddenly stops talking, and Harrison watches him slump back in his seat. The plane is now careening toward the sea without a pilot.

Harrison manages to undo his seat belt and, fighting G-forces that want to pin him to his seat, stumbles toward Allen. He and Franck try to rouse Allen. No response. The pilot is unconscious and the plane is out of control, plummeting in a 550-kilometre-per-hour dive to the ocean below.

Plane crashing

Instead of blue sky, the two men see whitecaps on waves below that are getting bigger and bigger as the plane continues to drop to 2,700, then 2,400, then 2,100 metres. 

The Cessna Caravan’s emergency alarms are wailing. Although he’s never taken a flying lesson, Harrison has flown on enough small planes and observed enough pilots to know that he has to pull back on the plane’s yoke to bring its nose up. But he has to do it slowly or the motor could stall, or the wings may be ripped off. Squatting behind Allen’s seat, he reaches over the unconscious pilot and grabs the yoke while Franck grabs the co-pilot’s yoke.

As the plane falls, both Harrison and Franck struggle to level off the aircraft, which has dropped more than 1,200 metres in 30 seconds. Soon, the plane’s nose levels off and turns up, before climbing back to 2,750 metres.

“Can you hold this steady?” Harrison asks Franck. While holding the co-pilot’s yoke, Franck helps Harrison unbuckle Allen’s seat belt, and Harrison pulls him off the seat and gently lays the unconscious pilot on the floor of the cabin. Harrison quickly climbs into the pilot’s seat and takes stock of the situation.

First and foremost, they are alive. But they are a long way from home. And neither man has ever flown a plane before.

An emergency flying lesson

Air-traffic controller Chip Flores has been on duty in the control tower at Fort Pierce’s airport since 7am. Because the winds have recently picked up, many of the student pilots who would normally be flying have been grounded, and Flores is thankful for the low traffic.

The quiet is interrupted when Flores gets a call on his headset. It’s Harrison: “Traffic. N Triple 3 Lima Delta. Come in,” he says, using the plane’s call sign the way he’d heard Allen say it.

Flores responds, “Caravan 333 Lima Delta, Fort Pierce tower.”

“I’ve got a serious situation here,” says Harrison. “My pilot...uh...has gone...incoherent. I have no idea how to fly the airplane.”

Flores jumps from his seat and hits a button on his console that broadcasts the radio transmission through the control tower’s loudspeakers. Alerted to an emergency, everyone in the tower drops what they are doing and listens to the call.

Air traffic control

Flores then asks Harrison, “What’s your position?”

“I have no idea. I see the coast of Florida in front of me and I have no idea.”

Flores takes a deep breath. What he doesn’t know is that somehow the Cessna’s display screens have gone blank. Harrison must have hit a switch that turned them off when he tugged Allen from his seat. The only instruments that are still operational are the altimeter, a basic compass and the attitude indicator, which shows whether the plane is level.

What Flores does know is that he may lose radio contact with Harrison at any minute because the plane is flying south and will soon be beyond the airport’s radio-transmission limits. Flores is also concerned about those first words Harrison said: “I have no idea how to fly the airplane.”

Harrison, Flores decides, needs a quick flying lesson. He radios Harrison and calmly tells him, “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.”

Flores and the entire tower team await Harrison’s response.

“Yeah, we are descending right now at 550 feet a minute.” Then he asks which direction he should be heading.

But Flores never gets the chance to tell him. He’s lost contact with the plane as it flies out of the airport’s radio-transmission zone.

"Franck realize they have lost contact with the tower. Flores’s voice becomes static, then nothing"

Flores radios Harrison: “This is Fort Pierce tower. Are you on the frequency?”

No answer.

Inside November 333 Lima Delta, Harrison and Franck realize they have lost contact with the tower. Flores’s voice becomes static, then nothing. 

Once again, Harrison and Franck are on their own. While Harrison holds the plane steady, Franck tries to figure out where they are and if they are even flying in the right direction. Franck had ceded control of the plane to the younger Harrison under the mistaken belief that he may have had some flight-simulator experience because he seemed so focused.

Franck peers out his window and says, “Look, there’s the coast over there.” He looks at his compass to ­double-check his bearings. “We need to go west to get to the airport.”

Harrison nods and makes a gradual turn toward the coast.

Franck instinctively reaches down to where Ken Allen is lying on the floor and taps his feet. The stricken pilot moves ever so slightly and Franck whispers, “Hang in there, Ken. Hang in there, my friend.”

As the plane flies into Palm Beach International Airport airspace, air-traffic controllers there take over from Flores. Their main mission: find someone to teach a passenger who has never flown before how to land a plane.

Greg Battani, an air-traffic-control specialist at the Palm Beach airport, pages Robert Morgan, who is sitting outside reading a book on his break. Morgan, an experienced air-traffic controller and flight instructor, hears the page: “Morgan! Come to the radar room immediately.” He slips on his shoes and rushes inside.

The airport’s operations manager, Mark Siviglia, meets him at the door and quickly briefs him: “We have passengers flying a plane, a Cessna 208. The pilot is unconscious. Can you help land this plane?”

Plane controls

Morgan’s eyes widen and he thinks, Is this really happening? This sounds like a movie!

He sits down at a radar scope in the darkened radar room and thinks, What am I going to tell this guy? Gathering his nerves, he radios Harrison, who is now about 32 kilometres to the south and flying west toward the Florida coastline. “This is 322 Palm Beach approach. What we are going to do is get you to Boca Raton Airport.”

Harrison responds, “I am not a ­pilot. My screens are black.”

“No problem. I want you to make a shallow turn to the north and hold steady at 3,000 feet.”

Morgan and the other controllers follow the Cessna on their radar screens as it turns slightly to the north, on a path for the airport at Boca Raton. Morgan radios Harrison, “That’s great. You look good.” Then, because he knows it’s important to keep in radio contact with a trainee pilot, he adds reassuringly, “Don’t worry. I’m here for you.”

Standard practice in an aviation emergency is to get the plane on the ground as soon as possible. In this case, that would mean landing at the Boca Raton Airport. But Boca Raton is a congested area, and the airport has only one runway. So Morgan decides to reroute Harrison further north, to his location at Palm Beach airport, with its three massive three-kilometre-long runways and a host of emergency services.

“Maintain your height at 3,000 feet and start a shallow turn to the right.” Shallow turns are key. If an untrained flyer makes them too steep, it could cause the plane to spiral to the ground.

As soon as Morgan radios the change, staffers at Palm Beach International Airport swing into action. Air-traffic controllers man the radios, stop all departures at the airport and place incoming flights into holding patterns. Emergency responders are ordered into positions along the runway, and all vehicles and planes are moved away from the airport’s three runways.

A bumpy landing

Harrison and Franck are glued to their headsets, listening to Morgan’s instructions. Franck scans the ground for familiar landmarks. He sees the I-95 freeway and nudges Harrison. They follow it north to Palm Beach International Airport.

As they do so, Harrison practises controlling the Cessna’s altitude, pushing the yoke forward to descend a bit and pulling it back to go up again. He also makes some small turns to the right, then to the left.

The plane is now approximately 10 kilometres south of the Palm Beach airport. “You should see the airport straight ahead,” Morgan tells Harrison. “I want you to start descending to 2,000 feet.”

Morgan soon grows concerned that Harrison is still flying too fast for a safe landing. He’s also worried that the strong crosswinds swirling around the runway could force the plane off course on landing. Morgan tells him to make a slight turn to the west.

“We’re going to bring you out to the west and give you more time to get lower and perfectly lined up with the runway,” he says.

Harrison follows each of Morgan’s instructions and is now turning the plane back to the airport to make his approach to the massive runway 10L.

“Let’s slow you down,” says Morgan. “See that black throttle control in front of you? Pull that back a little bit. Keep your speed above 110 knots.”

Harrison throttles back and lines up the runway, which is five kilometres away. The radar room is quiet; everyone’s eyes are fixed on the radar screens, watching this final approach.

Plane landing

“Your speed looks fine,” Morgan tells Harrison. “As you get closer, the runway will get wider, and once it gets really wide, I want you to pull the power back to you and also pull back on the controls.”

“Hey! I don’t know how to use the brakes. What do I do when I land?”

“When you get to the ground just put your feet on the top of the pedals and apply a bit of pressure.” Morgan quickly adds, “Gentle! Be very gentle when you press on the pedals.” 

What he doesn’t mention is that putting too much pressure on the brakes too early can blow a tire, causing a pilot to lose control of the plane, possibly crashing on the runway.

As the Cessna nears the airport, Morgan reads out the plane’s altitude to Harrison, “600 feet…500 feet…400 feet. You’re doing great!” Harrison, now less than two kilometres from landing, descends to 90 metres and is on target to land on runway 10L. The airport’s radar cannot pick up planes under 90 metres, and November 333 Lima Delta disappears from Morgan’s screen.

“Are you still there?” Morgan shouts.

Tortuous silence follows. Morgan swallows deeply as he and the other controllers in the blacked-out radar room stare at the blank screens.

Three seconds…four seconds…five seconds…six seconds…nothing.

Seven seconds…eight seconds…nine seconds.

Then the room’s loudspeaker crackles to life. It’s Harrison. “I’m on the ground. How do I stop this thing?”

"The radar room erupts in cheers"

Morgan hits the radio call button: “Use the toe brakes—nice, gently!”

Harrison, still barefoot, gently presses the pedals and brings the plane to a stop, in the middle of the runway, 25 minutes after taking the controls.

The radar room erupts in cheers. Exhausted but flushed with adrenaline, Morgan stands and blinks back tears.

Harrison, feeling comfortable now at the plane’s controls, radios Morgan, “Hey, do you want me to taxi this off the runway?”

Morgan chuckles. “Amazing,” he says to himself. “That guy is amazing.”

Editors’ note: Ambulances rushed Ken Allen to the Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with an aortic dissection, a tear in the inner layer of the aorta that is often fatal. Doctors operated and he made a full recovery. 

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter

This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you. Read our disclaimer

Loading up next...
Stories by email|Subscription
Readers Digest

Launched in 1922, Reader's Digest has built 100 years of trust with a loyal audience and has become the largest circulating magazine in the world

Readers Digest
Reader’s Digest is a member of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (which regulates the UK’s magazine and newspaper industry). We abide by the Editors’ Code of Practice and are committed to upholding the highest standards of journalism. If you think that we have not met those standards, please contact 0203 289 0940. If we are unable to resolve your complaint, or if you would like more information about IPSO or the Editors’ Code, contact IPSO on 0300 123 2220 or visit