Passenger-Turned-Pilot: ‘Control the Situation or You’re Going to Die’

Darren Harrison
Darren Harrison

The Cessna Caravan was in a nosedive, its pilot unresponsive behind the controls. “I knew it was a life-or-death situation. Either you do what you have to do to control the situation or you’re going to die. And that’s what I did.”

Darren Harrison of Lakeland spoke those words to NBC TODAY co-host Savannah Guthrie about his experience taking control of the aircraft and bringing it down for a safe landing at the West Palm Beach airport despite having no flight training.

Harrison recounted his experience in a 10-minute segment broadcast this morning. He was interviewed Saturday in a hangar near Lakeland Linder International Airport, sporting a shirt with the logo of Sunshine Interiors, the flooring company on Drane Field Road where he is vice president.

Harrison, 39, was relaxing barefoot a couple of rows behind the pilot and a friend of the pilot, who was the only other passenger on the single-engine plane last Tuesday. They were returning to Florida from a fishing trip in the Bahamas. The pilot, whose name has not been released, complained of feeling “fuzzy” and then blacked out.

During the interview, Harrison described how he reached around the pilot, grabbed the controls, and slowly righted the aircraft. Then he realized that it would be up to him to land the plane; he said he gradually became more comfortable with the controls and knew that “the hand of God was on that plane.”

One complication: When he tried to use the pilot’s headset, he discovered the wires were frayed and the plug was no longer connected. Instead, he used the pilot’s friend’s headset. In addition, the plane’s GPS had malfunctioned.

Harrison’s wife, Brittney, who is seven months pregnant, wasn’t aware of the ordeal but became alarmed when Darren’s name popped up on her phone earlier than his expected Lakeland arrival; he had called after the emergency landing in West Palm Beach.

Brittney and their unborn daughter were major inspirations, Harrison said: “As I was climbing to the front and as the plane was in a dive, I was just looking going ‘I can’t die today. Brittney’s pregnant, I got a baby on the way. Not today. Today is not my day,” he said.

Darren Harrison and Savannah Guthrie (Photo: NBC TODAY)

Air Traffic Control recordings reveal Harrison was very calm while he was flying the plane. But he said waves of emotion hit after he landed: “I said the biggest prayer I’ve ever said in my life.” He described it as a prayer of thanks but said the strongest part was for the health of the pilot.

The pilot, who was hospitalized with an aortic aneurysm after the landing, had not been expected to live; but as of the weekend, he was scheduled to leave the hospital today, Harrison told Guthrie.

Watch the NBC TODAY report here: