Emergency Landing: “I Need Help Up Here”

When catastrophe strikes on a private plane, a passenger places a desperate call to air traffic control: "I need help up here."

By Kenneth Miller from Reader's Digest | October 2009

Just then, a supervisor arrived with Lisa Grimm, who knelt next to Henkels and plugged her headset into his radar panel. Grimm, 31, had flown Learjets and worked as a flight instructor before becoming a controller; though she’d flown a King Air only once for two hours, she was able to tell White how to disengage the autopilot. The plane had reached 17,500 feet before he could switch it off.

“We’re going to start a slow, shallow descent,” Grimm said in a soothing tone. “Pull back slowly on the throttle and ease the yoke over gently.”

The “gently” part proved challenging. Even under normal conditions, changing a King Air’s direction manually takes more force than White was used to. But with the plane’s other controls still set to climb, moving the yoke took all the strength he could muster. He remembered the trim wheel, which adjusts airflow to relieve pressure on the main controls, and reached for it on the left side of the center console. Pushing Cabuk’s leg aside, he turned the saucer-sized disk and managed to bring the nose down.

At the Miami center, Grimm continued advising White. “I want to get you down to 11,000,” she said. He tried to keep his descent gradual, but his speed and angle fluctuated wildly. Side by side with Grimm, Henkels and colleague Jessica Anaya, 26, worked frantically to direct other planes out of the way.

As White’s craft reached the proper cruising altitude, Grimm began thinking ahead to the landing. She knew it would be difficult and that making the attempt in Miami was not an option; FAA regulations require a distressed plane to be guided to the closest airport. A supervisor had already contacted controllers at Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers.

“You’re going to be talking to Fort Myers approach in just a minute,” Grimm said. “They’re going to get you down safe.” She told White to turn left, over the Gulf of Mexico, beginning a circular maneuver that would set him on the proper course. As the horizon vanished into a blur of blue, he could stay oriented only by consulting the artificial horizon display on the instrument panel. It was hard to maintain a steady altitude while keeping a close watch on the display, so White set the autopilot to 11,000 feet and turned it back on, not anticipating that the plane would be sent careening to the right. He hastily turned it off.

“You’re doing well,” said Grimm. Then she told him how to switch the radio to Fort Myers’s frequency. White hated to cut off contact with Grimm; her calm voice had become his lifeline. She promised to stand by in case he wanted to talk to her again.

Brian Norton was leaving work at the Fort Myers control center when his boss chased him down. “We’ve got an emergency,” the supervisor said. Norton, 48, was one of two controllers with piloting experience on duty that afternoon, along with newcomer Dan Favio, 29, who’d been at Fort Myers for two months. Neither one of them had flown a King Air 200, but Favio knew someone who had: his old pal Kari Sorenson, 43, a corporate pilot he’d met while working at the airport in Danbury, Connecticut.

Sorenson, as it happened, had air tragedy in his background. As a teenager, he’d lost his father, also a corporate pilot, in a plane crash; his stepfather, a demonstration pilot for private jets, was killed when TWA Flight 800 exploded off Long Island in 1996. Sorenson, who became a pilot in part to honor his dad, is devoted to preventing other disasters. “I want to make the world a little safer,” he says.

As Norton plugged into a radar panel, Favio sat beside him and pulled out his cell phone to call Sorenson. His friend told him he hadn’t flown a King Air since 1995 but still had the manual and cockpit layout. With those in hand, and the serial number of White’s plane, he sat down at his home computer to look up which model of the aircraft White was flying.

Norton radioed to White: “We’re getting some help from another pilot who’s familiar with the airplane. Are you using the autopilot or hand-flying the plane?”

“Me and the good Lord are hand-flying this Five-Five-Niner-Delta-Whiskey,” White replied, relieved at the promise of additional backup. In the cabin behind him, Terri and the girls were still huddled, holding hands.

“Okay,” said Norton. “We’ll start working you toward the airport.” He instructed White to head 90 degrees to the left. White didn’t think he could make the turn, given how fast he was descending. He asked for control settings that would get him to the proper speed. Sorenson’s suggestion—relayed by Favio to Norton, and by Norton to White—involved adjusting a device called a heading bug. But White didn’t know how to use it, and there was no time to learn. His airspeed was wavering from 230 knots down to 110, posing the danger of a stall.

Finally, Sorenson hit on a solution: “Tell him to fly the King Air like it’s a single-engine plane. An airplane is an airplane.” The advice freed White to rely on his instincts as a pilot; meanwhile, the three men on the ground limited their instructions to the plane’s most basic controls. Soon White was flying more smoothly.

When the King Air was down to 2,000 feet, White spied a gray stripe in the distance. “I think I see the runway at twelve o’clock,” he said. The plane was 15 miles from the airport, lined up for the final approach. Sorenson sent word that White should slow the plane to 160 knots, then drop the landing gear and flaps.

“When I touch down—if I touch down—do I just kill the throttle?” asked White.

“That’s correct,” Norton said. “Kill the throttle and maximum braking.”

The altimeter read 1,800 feet, then 1,000, then 500. An armada of ambulances and fire trucks was lined up along the landing strip. Terri and the girls prayed harder. “It looks good from here,” Norton told White. “The runway is all yours.”

In Miami, a supervisor called out to Lisa Grimm: “He’s down!”

“What does that mean?” she yelled. “The plane is down safely or on fire?”

In Fort Myers, Favio rushed out of the building to see what had happened. The King Air was sitting on the runway, gleaming in the Florida sun after a perfect landing. Inside the tower and the Miami control center, the cheers and backslaps had already begun.

After White received instructions from a ground controller on how to shut off his engines, he and his family staggered from the plane. Paramedics, meanwhile, carried Joe Cabuk from the cockpit and tried to revive him, but they were unsuccessful. The autopsy later determined he had died of a heart attack.

Back home in Louisiana, White sent gift certificates for steak dinners to Grimm, Norton, Favio, and Sorenson. They, in turn, give him most of the credit for getting the King Air out of the sky in one piece.

“There’s a sense of fulfillment for all of us,” says Sorenson. “But Doug is really the guy who made it happen. We just gave him the tools for the job.”

For a month after the incident, White was awakened every night around 3 a.m. by vivid dreams: Once again he was at the controls of a plane he didn’t know how to fly. He soon returned to his flight lessons, determined to be prepared in case of another emergency. Whatever other resources he drew from that Sunday, he believes a higher power was involved in saving his family. “God spared us for something,” he says.

Adds Terri, “I just hope we have enough sense to recognize the reason when it comes.”

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