LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – For the first time, the Polk County man who emergency landed a plane without any pilot training is speaking out on the harrowing experience.
“I was pretty calm and collected the whole time because I knew it was a life-or-death situation. Either you do what you have to do to control the situation or you’re gonna die and that’s what I did,” Lakeland’s Darren Harrison told The TODAY Show’s Savannah Guthrie.
Harrison spoke with Guthrie on Saturday in a hangar near Lakeland Linder International Airport.
“My nightmare has always been when I go on flights like this – what happens if something health-wise happens to the pilot. What’s gonna happen?” said Harrison.
Harrison no longer has to wonder.
According to Harrison, last week, mid-air, his pilot said he wasn’t feeling well.
“I said, ‘what’s wrong?’ He said, ‘I got a headache and I’m fuzzy and I just don’t feel right.’ And I said, ‘what do we need to do’? And at that point, he didn’t respond at all. He was already done,” said Harrison.
The plane had three souls on board: Harrison, the pilot and the pilot’s friend.
When he found himself suddenly in control of a plane, he said the hardest part wasn’t landing the plane – it was what happened in the first few seconds.
“By the time I had moved forward to the front of the airplane, I realized that we had now gone into a dive at a very fast rate. I didn’t realize how fast the rate was at that time. All I saw when I came up to the front was water out the right window and I knew it was coming quick,” he said.
Harrison said he grabbed the controls of the airplane and pulled the stick to turn the plane.
As if the nose dive and the incapacitated pilot were not challenging enough, Harrison said the pilot’s headset was frayed and the GPS stopped working.
Still, with careful instruction from air traffic controller and flight instructor Robert Morgan, Harrison safely landed the plane at Palm Beach International Airport.
“Somebody asked me the other day what my heart rate was, or what I thought my heart rate was when all that was going on. I said it was probably in the 90s. And they said, what about when it was all over? It was probably about 160. The moment I stopped the plane, that’s when it hit me,” said Harrison.
Harrison said he said a prayer when he landed.
“The last part of the prayer and the strongest part was for the guy in the back,” he said of the pilot.
His wife, Brittney, is seven months pregnant.
When she received a call from him 20 minutes before he was supposed to land, she expected the worst.
“Honestly I took a deep breath and prepared myself for it to not be him on the other line,” she said.
His wife, his first call, was also the source of strength he needed when he first sprang into action.
“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.
According to Harrison, the pilot suffered an aortic aneurysm on the flight and is expected to be released from the hospital Monday.
“Everybody always asks me – ‘How did the airplane do what it did? How did it stay together? How did you pull it out? The hand of God was on that plane,” said Harrison.