If ever there was a pilot who made his passengers feel they were in good hands, it was Joe Cabuk. The 67-year-old Air Force colonel had flown F-100s over Vietnam, commanded a fighter wing in England, and served as assistant director of operations for NATO in Italy. After retiring from the military in 1989, he’d returned to his native northeastern Louisiana, where he spent 20 years flying charter planes out of Monroe Regional Airport. Silver-haired and ramrod-straight, he was the father of two grown sons, a deacon of his Baptist church—and a man who took no chances with his aircraft.
Around 1:30 p.m. last Easter Sunday, Cabuk was at the controls of a six-seat Beechcraft King Air 200, calling out his climb checklist after taking off over Naples, Florida: “Yaw damper on. Climb power set. Propellers 1,900 rpm.” Keeping him company in the copilot’s seat was the plane’s owner, a lanky construction entrepreneur named Doug White. White’s wife, Terri, and their two teenage daughters snuggled under blankets in the passenger area, hoping to read and nap during the three-hour flight home.
White, 56, took comfort in Cabuk’s careful recitation. It had been a wrenching week. The previous Saturday, the businessman’s 53-year-old brother, a resident of Naples, had died of a heart attack. White and his family, who lived in the tiny farming town of Archibald, Louisiana, had flown to Florida for the funeral. Now Cabuk was flying the four of them back west.
White tapped him on the shoulder and called his name. Raising his head, Cabuk gave a long moan. Then his eyes rolled back in their sockets, and he was still.
White turned around and shouted to his wife, “Come up here, Terri. We’ve got a problem.” When she saw Cabuk slumped in his seat, she grabbed his arm and tried shaking him awake. “Leave him alone,” White said after several seconds, grasping the terrible truth. “He’s dead.”
In the cabin, 18-year-old Maggie, a freshman at Louisiana State University, and her sister, Bailey, 16, a high school sophomore, began to tremble. The plane was a mile above the earth, ascending at a rate of 2,000 feet per minute. And no one on board knew how to get it safely to the ground.
Doug White was a licensed pilot, but just barely. In 1990, he’d logged enough hours to pass his test in a Cessna 172, a tiny single-engine plane designed for beginners. He’d soloed only once, then abandoned the hobby. White was that kind of guy: restless and driven, prone to taking up a challenge and moving on after he’d mastered it. Eighteen years later, he bought this used King Air as an investment, leasing it to the Monroe airport for charter flights. Owning the plane got him interested in flying again, and he logged a few more hours in little Cessnas. But they were among the most basic aircraft, with a leisurely cruising speed of 100 knots (about 115 mph).
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The King Air, by comparison, was dauntingly complex: a twin-engine turboprop, three times faster and five times heavier than anything White had flown, its instrument panel crowded with dozens of unfamiliar gauges and switches. The only control he was sure he could operate was the radio; he’d asked the pilot how it worked the last time he was aboard.
The plane was currently flying on autopilot, a device White had never used. It was set to 10,000 feet, but because Cabuk hadn’t had a chance to push all the necessary buttons, the aircraft kept climbing after reaching that altitude. White knew enough to worry that if the plane rose much beyond 35,000 feet, it would stall in the thin air and go into a spin.
A more urgent fear: that Cabuk might slump onto the controls. “Get him out of here!” White barked at Terri. She hollered for Maggie, but there wasn’t room in the cramped cockpit for both of them to get a handhold. Terri struggled to lift Cabuk’s body herself, then gave up and tightened his flight harness to keep him in place.
“Y’all go back there and pray hard,” White told her.
Terri kissed him on the cheek, telling him, “You can do this.” Then she returned to the cabin and wrapped her arms around the girls. After comforting Maggie—who, overcome with terror and nausea, threw up in an air- sickness bag—Terri did as her husband had requested. She’d survived a bout with cancer four years earlier. If it’s my time to die, Lord, she thought, it’s my time. But my mother-in-law already buried one son this week. Please don’t give her anyone else to mourn.
White got on the radio. “Miami,” he said, “I’ve got to declare an emergency. My pilot’s unconscious. I need help up here.”
Nate Henkels, 30, sitting in front of a radarscope trained on a swath of Florida airspace, took the call at the Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center. “Are you a qualified pilot?” asked Henkels, one of 97 controllers working that day.
“Low-time, single-engine. I need a King Air pilot to talk to.”
Henkels was stunned; while passengers had occasionally landed planes when the pilot was incapacitated, few aircraft had been as large and complex as this one. After alerting his supervisors to White’s predicament, Henkels instructed him to maintain an altitude of 12,000 feet—but since Henkels had little flying experience, he couldn’t tell White how to do so. For six minutes, as Henkels juggled the dozen aircraft in his sector, the King Air kept rising. “I need to stop this climb,” White said. “Stay with me.”
“I’m here,” Henkels replied, fighting his own fear. “Don’t worry. I’m trying to find a solution.”