WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - A Florida man with no flying experience who kept his cool while landing a small plane says "the hand of God" was with him after the pilot collapsed at the controls.
Darren Harrison told NBC’s "Today" show that he was relaxing with his feet up in the back of the single-engine Cessna after a fishing trip in the Bahamas when the pilot told him and another passenger: "Guys, I gotta tell you I don’t feel good."
"He said, ’I’ve got a headache and I’m fuzzy and I just don’t feel right," the 39-year-old flooring salesman said. "And I said, ‘What do we need to do?’ and at that point he didn’t respond at all."
Harrison climbed into the cockpit and saw that the plane was diving, and fast.
"All I saw when I came up to the front was water out the right window and I knew it was coming quick. At that point I knew if I didn’t react, that we would die."
Harrison said he reached over the unconscious pilot and grabbed the controls, slowly pulling back the stick to level the plane. It was a common-sense move, he said.
"I knew if I went up and yanked that, the airplane would stall," he said. "And I also knew that at the rate we were going, we were going way too fast, and it would probably rip the wings off of the airplane."
That, he said, was "the scariest part of the whole story."
With help from the other passenger — a friend of the pilot, he said — they moved him out of the pilot’s seat. Harrison jumped in and put on the headset, only to realize that the wires were frayed and the plug was gone. So he got the headset from the other passenger.
He reached an air traffic controller in Florida. Asked if he knew the plane’s position, Harrison said the GPS was out so he had no idea.
According to Flight Aware, the plane had taken off earlier Tuesday from Marsh Harbour International Airport in the Bahamas.
The air traffic controller then asked what he could see.
"I see the state of Florida and I see a small airport," Harrison told him.
At this point, he refused to let fear set in.
"When I was flying and saw the state of Florida, at that second I knew I’m going to land there," he said. "I don’t know what the outcome’s going to be, I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but I knew I’m going to have to land this airplane because there’s no other option."
Harrison said he had to get home to his wife Britney, seven months pregnant with their first child.
"People said what if you had crashed and died? You could have at least called her, you could have reached out to her, you had time," Harrison said. "In my mind I knew I wasn’t going to die, and the thought never crossed my mind to call and tell my wife ‘bye.’"
Air Traffic Controller Robert Morgan, who coached Harrison into a safe landing at Palm Beach International Airport, told him the runway would appear bigger and bigger as he approached.
At around 200 feet, Harrison said Morgan told him he needed to slow down.
"At that point I told the other guy, hey take the throttle and dump it on the floor. Just dump it on the floor as far as it will go," Harrison said.
The plane touched down safely.
"I said thank you for everything and I threw the headset on the dash and I said the biggest prayer I’ve ever said in my life," Harrison recalled.
"That’s when all the emotion set in," he added.
He said he offered up a "thankful prayer for the safety and everything that had happened. But the last part of the prayer and the strongest part was for the guy in the back because I knew it was not a good situation."
The pilot was taken to a hospital and is expected to be released early this week, Harrison said.
Harrison then called his wife, who wasn’t expecting to hear from him so early. She said that last year, her sister was six months pregnant when her husband died, "so honestly I took a deep breath and prepared myself for it not to be him on the other line."
"I told myself, "God we can’t do this again. I don’t think I could do it again. And thankfully we didn’t have to."