“I can’t die today. Today’s not my day,” was the thought Darren Harrison said was going through his mind as he rushed to the cockpit of the Cessna Caravan he was riding in on his way back to Florida after a fishing trip in the Bahamas.
In an interview with the Today show’s Savannah Guthrie that aired Monday, the interior designer who landed the turboprop safely at Palm Beach International Airport (KBPI) last week after the pilot lost consciousness–which was as a result of an aortic aneurysm–said he was thinking about his wife, Brittany, who is seven months pregnant with a baby girl.
Harrison, 39, said the flight initially seemed normal and that he was relaxed. He even took his shoes off, kicked back, and took a photograph of his bare feet with the cabin and cockpit as the backdrop. Shortly after he took the photo, though, the pilot told him and the other passenger that he didn’t feel well. “I’ve got a headache, and I’m fuzzy and I don’t feel right,” he said, according to Harrison, who then hurried to the cockpit.
“By the time I had moved forward to the front of the airplane, I realized we had now gone into a dive at a very fast rate. All I saw when I came up to the front was water out the right window and I knew it was coming quick,” Harrison said. “At that point, I knew that if I didn’t react, we would die.”
Harrison described how he took the aircraft’s controls, despite not having any flight training or piloting experience, and eased back on the yoke to recover from the dive. He attributed his success in returning to level flight to “common sense” and having spent time on airplanes before. He said he knew he had to make gentle control inputs to avoid stalling the airplane or damaging it by recovering too abruptly from the high-speed descent.
“At the rate we were going, we were probably going way too fast, and it would rip the wings off the airplane,” he said.
Harrison also said that when traveling by air he has often considered what he would do if the pilot suddenly became incapacitated.
“My nightmare has always been, when I go on flights like this, what happens if something healthwise happens to the pilot?”
Despite these worries, Harrison said he did not hesitate to take command of the Caravan, and felt he could land it.
“When I was flying and saw the state of Florida, at that second, I knew, ‘I’m going to land there. I don’t know what the outcome is going to be. I don’t know how it’s going to happen. But I’m going to have to land this airplane, because there is no other option,’” he said.
With the help of air traffic controllers Chip Flores and Robert Morgan, who guided him to the 10,000-foot runway at Palm Beach International, Harrison landed the Caravan smoothly. He said he felt so confident after landing and slowing the airplane with his still-bare feet on the pedals that he even offered to taxi off the runway afterward, “to clear this thing out.”
Harrison also said he was told that the pilot was expected to be released from the hospital on Monday.