Monday, March 29, 2010
My fascination with flying was inherited from my father. Somehow the things that cause your father to slip into the “awe” mode make an impression. I can still hear my dad describe the acceleration of that big airliner with four engines under full power launching a heavily loaded aircraft into the blue. “Wow!” and you could hear the enthusiasm rattle in his masculine voice.
I was a senior in high school when I landed a job at the local airport (no pun intended). That year I spent my afternoons fueling private aircraft, driving a tanker truck around the field and talking to the control tower every time I moved from one spot on the tarmac to the other. It was heady stuff. I bummed more than a few rides from my new friends. Point to any airplane on the field, and I could rattle off the make, year and model. Let me peak through the side window and I’d explain all the instruments and avionics.
Pilots like to tell stories if the audience shows any interest at all. I was a wide-eyed kid who wanted to know everything.
Fifty-six year old Doug White’s successful leasing company owns a Turbo King Air. That’s a serious, high performance airplane. When his brother died one year ago Easter, he called on his good friend, Joe Cabuk, a graduate of the Air Force Academy and retired fighter pilot, to pilot the twin-engine business turbo to south Florida for the sad funeral. Doug, his wife and two teen-age daughters, Maggie and Bailey, along with the veteran flier, would attend the memorial. Afterwards, they boarded the aircraft for the trip home to Atlanta. Shortly after take off, at about five thousand feet and climbing, Joe leaned back in his seat releasing the controls, ridged, and made a strange gurgling sound, then went limp, unconscious. Doug called out, “Joe! Joe!” But there was no response.
Joe Cabuk, the family’s pilot and captain of the aircraft, died that moment in the left seat of the King Air while making its ascent to altitude.
Doug feared that Joe would fall forward onto the controls and send the airplane into a dive. He clumsily reached over from the right seat and with help from his wife, secured Joe’s body with the shoulder harness and seat belt. She sobbed, terrified, and fell back into her seat. Then Doug turned to the control panel.
“There are more dials on that thing than the space shuttle,” he said later in his Georgia drawl.
He grabbed the mike. “This is King Air Niner Delta Whiskey. My pilot’s unconscious. We need help up here,” he said in a shaky voice.
Then he turned back to his passengers. “I need you all to pray… and pray hard,” he said firmly. His wife nodded, tears spilling over down her cheeks. Bailey wept, too. Maggie threw up.
“OK. All aircraft, stand by,” came the reply from the tower. Joe sighed, knowing the radio worked.
The next thirty minutes would be terrifying. Eighteen years ago, Doug had a private pilot’s license. He flew a small single engine Cessna, but let it go until just a few months before his brother’s funeral. He accumulated a few hours in another little single engine two-seater. Now, he found himself in control of a King Air. A turbo King Air.
“It would be like taking a teenager with a brand new learner’s permit and putting him into the driver’s seat of a stick shift high performance NASCAR racing machine at full speed and expect him to get it into the pit through heavy traffic,” said Lisa Grimm, the air traffic controller from Miami, the first to begin radio communication with Doug. She was an experienced pilot herself, and a certified instructor.
“Stay with me, Miami!” Doug cried. “You’ve gotta get me the biggest, widest, longest runway you can find, m’am.”
“We’re gunna guide you in, Niner Delta Whiskey,” she said with a calm in her voice that was in sharp contrast to Doug’s.
“I’m in the good Lord’s hands,” Doug radioed back.
Thanks to YouTube, the entire communication is preserved and available to anyone who cares to relive those harrowing thirty minutes. The professionalism and high tech communication utilized to guide the sweaty palmed, white knuckled novice in the right seat is nothing short of extraordinary. He got quality direction each step of the way.
Fire trucks lined the taxiway on either side as Doug approached, gear down, full flaps, throttle back, nose up and over one hundred miles per hour. Doug’s three ladies prayed. Hard. The corpse of his friend sat upright and motionless in the captain’s seat. The wheels squealed as they hit the pavement. As instructed, Doug shut down the throttle and hit the brakes. The airplane came to a stop. Runway to spare.
Whew. I can only imagine the relief as the family of four step off the step and on to terra firma.
NBC News reports that the controllers who assisted Doug White to the ground are being honored in Washington DC at Ronald Reagan International for their incredible work. When asked about Lisa Grimm, Doug simply said, “She’s my angel.”
Doug picked up his flying lessons with a new determination. In that one year, he completed his multi-engine, commercial and instructor ratings. He now flies his company’s King Air on this own, from the left seat. He finished those courses in record time.
Shortly after he earned the ratings, earthquake hit Port au Prince. Within days, Doug White put himself in that left seat, flying that same King Air on mercy missions to Haiti.
My dad would say, “Wow.”
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2010