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Hero describes 'life or death situation' of landing plane at Palm Beach International Airport

Darren Harrison, 39, forced to land Cessna 208 when pilot suffers medical emergency
Darren Harrison speaks to TODAY anchor Savannah Guthrie on May 16, 2022.jpg
Posted at 10:58 AM, May 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-16 15:17:20-04

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — A Lakeland man said he was thrust into a "life or death situation" last week when he was forced to land a small private plane at Palm Beach International Airport after the pilot suffered a medical emergency and became unconscious.

Darren Harrison, 39, spoke exclusively to TODAY on Monday about the harrowing ordeal on May 10.

Darren Harrison speaks to TODAY anchor Savannah Guthrie on May 16, 2022 (1).jpg
Darren Harrison speaks to TODAY anchor Savannah Guthrie on May 16, 2022.

Harrison was a passenger in a single-engine Cessna 208 from the Bahamas to Fort Pierce when the pilot suffered an aortic aneurysm.

"He said, I got a headache and I'm fuzzy. And I just don't feel right," Harrison told TODAY anchor Savannah Guthrie. "And I said, what do we need to do? And at that point he didn't respond at all."

With the plane in a nosedive, Harrison, who has no flying experience, realized that if he wanted to live, he needed to take charge.

Harrison reached over the unconscious pilot's body, grabbed the controls, and pulled back on the stick to level the aircraft out, something he called "common sense." Harrison then lifted the pilot out of the seat so he could better guide the plane.

"I had to start trying to lift him out of the way so I could climb in the seat and fly the airplane. And it took me a little bit to get him out of the seat," Harrison said. "At some point, the realization sets in that you're gonna have to land the airplane."

The man who would help Harrison do so was Robert Morgan, a part-time flight instructor and air traffic controller at PBIA.

Air traffic controller Robert Morgan, Cessna
Robert Morgan with a picture of the Cessna that he helped an inexperienced pilot land at Palm Beach International Airport on May 10, 2022.

"He comes on the radio and he said, hey, we're gonna have to put the flaps down to help slow you down. Put the flaps down and immediately the nose started to come up to a rate that I wasn't comfortable with," Harrison said. "And I came over the radio and I said, is it possible for me to land this airplane with no flaps? And he said, no flaps it is. We're gonna land it with no flaps."

Minutes later, Harrison successfully touched down on the runway. Throughout the whole tense incident, Harrison said he remained "pretty calm and collected" because he knew it was a "life or death situation."

Watch video of plane landing below:

Small plane lands safely at PBIA after pilot suffers medical issue

Harrison's wife is seven months pregnant with their first child, a girl.

"Everybody asked me, well what if you would've crashed and died and you didn't get a chance to tell your life you loved her? 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. The thought never crossed my mind to tell my wife, bye."

WPTV confirmed the pilot was taken to St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach, where his condition is unknown.