Darren was on his way home from a fishing trip when he received a grim message. With his aircraft suddenly in danger, he had to make a fateful choice. This is his awe-inspiring story.
A Flight With Fate
It was another routine flight home for Darren Harrison - he had been on vacation in the Bahamas. He'd done this plenty of times before and never had to worry about a thing. Except, this time, things were different.
This simple, routine flight became a matter of life and death within mere moments. Harrison went from thinking everything was fine to worrying about what would happen next. It took a lot of bravery and courage to get through it all. Let's take a look back at where it all began...
Growing up, Harrison was the definition of an outdoorsman. He frequently took fishing and hunting trips. Even today, his Instagram is full of photos showing off his catches, like giant fish. Harrison would sometimes even bring his dog with him when he went out on such adventures.
But when he wasn't busy enjoying the outdoors, Harrison ran a flooring and design business with his dad. Outside of work, the Florida local lived happily with his wife, Britney, and things were just taking off for them and their growing family.
Darren and Britney were about to become parents! They shared the news with their friends and family through social media. The soon-to-be mom and dad were over the moon at the thought of their growing family. On Instagram, Darren documented the journey as they prepared for their new roles.
From setting up the bassinet for their little girl to painting the walls of the baby's nursery a pretty pink, it was clear that this father-to-be was excited about this new title. Darren even shared a photo of their dog holding the sonogram with the caption, "Big brother is ready!" Things were certainly looking up.
Calm Before the Storm
Shortly before becoming a dad, Darren went on a little getaway to an outdoorsman's paradise. He took a fishing trip to the Bahamas with a few friends. Meanwhile, Britney was in her third trimester. Little did he know this was the last trip he would take before his life changed completely.
In a matter of time, Darren's life was going to take a dramatic turn before the arrival of his daughter. After enjoying his time fishing in the Caribbean and catching a few big ones, it was time to return home to his wife and dog. So, he packed up his things and headed to the airplane.
No Standard Jet
However, Darren wasn't heading toward an international airport to fly with an airline. He went to an airstrip where he was met by a pilot and the pilot's friend. They would be taking a small one-engine plane back to Florida - they would be flying in style on the Cessna 208.
The Cessna 208 has been around since the 1980s. They are used for many purposes, from VIP flights to humanitarian missions. They can fly for 1,200 miles on a single gas tank and reach speeds up to 210 mph. Usually, they seat around 14 people - but on this fateful flight, there were only two passengers and one pilot on board.
Darren had finished his fishing trip and was ready to return home. He boarded the Cessna, along with the other passenger and the pilot. Everything looked perfectly normal - the pilot went through routine safety checks, and they were ready for their journey to Florida.
They took off from the airway and flew through the beautiful blue sky. Darren took off his shoes and watched the world underneath him pass by. After a trip out in the sun, he was taking it easy on this flight back. However, he was not going to have much time to relax.
The flight was going along swimmingly. Darren was enjoying looking out the window as they passed through the clouds. Then, everything changed. Out of nowhere, the pilot, Ken Allen, said to Darren and the other passenger, Allen's friend Russ Franck, "Guys, I gotta tell you, I don't feel right."
That is definitely not the best or most comforting thing to hear as a passenger on a plane, especially a small aircraft like the Cessna. Darren had no idea what was wrong with the pilot, but they had to figure out a way to help him. After all, who would fly the plane if he couldn't?
Stranded in the Sky
"I've got a headache, and everything is fuzzy," Allen continued to say. And then, moments later, without warning, he passed out. Now the pilot of their airplane was unconscious, and the two passengers had to figure out something to do. They had to think, fast.
If a situation like this were to happen on a passenger jet, there would have been a second pilot to take control or enough crew members to know what to do in an emergency such as this. But Darren Harrison and Russ Franck were alone thousands of miles high in the sky.
Race Against Time
There was no one there to help them out. "At that point, I knew if I didn't react, we would die," Darren later recalled about the event. They had a massive problem on their hands, and they had to act fast if they wanted to stay alive. What were they going to do?
Unfortunately, the frazzled passengers had no time to panic or try and call someone from their phones. And as Darren looked out his passenger window, he was faced with a daunting realization: They needed to come up with a plan, and they had to do it quickly.
The plane was in a complete nosedive, heading to the water. There was little time remaining to do something. Darren, who had no experience flying a plane, would have to make some serious decisions fast if he was going to stay alive. If he didn't, the worst could happen.
Darren explained, "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. All I saw, when I came up the front, was water out the right window, and I knew it was coming quick. Very, very quickly."
Flying a plane is no joke. Usually, the process to obtain a flying license for private planes takes around 6 to 12 months and requires a minimum of 40 hours of flying time. Becoming a pilot for commercial airlines requires even more time training and flying.
However, there was no time for Darren to waste. Despite having no experience flying planes, he knew that he had to take action if they were going to survive this. The Floridian had to plan the next steps. So, he got up from his seat and immediately went to the cockpit.
Nothing Left To Lose
Darren knew that he had to do something. So, he sprung into action. Without any piloting skills or knowledge, he took matters into his own hands. Luckily, when Ken Allen passed out, he did not land on the control panel. So, he reached over the pilot's unconscious body to grab the airplane controls.
"I heard myself think, 'If you don't touch those controls you're going to die in the next twenty seconds,'" he told PEOPLE. "My wife is back at home, 6 months pregnant, and I tell myself, 'I can't die today. This can't happen.'" The dad-to-be knew what he had to do. He had to save the day.
With Darren's hands on the controls, he had to be very careful. Several things could go wrong if he did not handle this next bit properly. For example, if the control gears were pulled too sharply, the plane's engine could stall... or the wings could be torn off.
There were so many factors at play. The new aircraft pilot without experience had to consider the speed, direction, and more. It would take a miracle for them to get through this alive. When Darren took the controls, he steadily moved them backward and to the right.
That was some quick and great thinking on his feet - miraculously, he seemed to know what to do. He was able to get them flying at an altitude of 9,000 feet. Darren was no stranger to these planes. He had taken them on his fishing trips many times and was an observant passenger.
He told Today's Savannah Guthrie, "Just common sense, I guess, being on airplanes, because I knew if I went up and yanked that the airplane would stall." He continued, "And I also knew at the rate we were going, we were probably going way too fast, and it would rip the wings off the airplane."
They may have avoided immediate death by getting out of that nosedive, but there was still a lot more danger ahead before they could say they had made it home safely. Darren had to figure out what they would do next to make sure that he would get home for his pregnant wife.
He had no idea where they were or even how to fly the aircraft he was now in control of. Plus, they had the unconscious pilot still sprawled in the cockpit. There was so much going on. However, this was no time to panic. So, the fisherman came up with a plan of action.
A Numbers Game
Darren knew they had to get the pilot, Ken Allen, out of his chair. For starters, Darren needed to sit there to control the plane properly. So, he turned to the other passenger, Russ Franck, and asked, "Do you think you can hold us at this altitude?"
Then, Darren instructed him, "Watch these numbers on this screen. Don't let 'em go up or down." After delegating, Darren unbuckled the pilot from his seat and carried him to the back of the plane. He laid him down, opting not to buckle him in too tightly in case there was a crash landing, and they needed to make a quick getaway.
In the cockpit, Darren returned to the empty pilot's seat and buckled himself in. After a moment of disorientation, he used an old-school compass on the dashboard to help situate himself. They had been flying south, but Darren knew they had to head northwest to get to Florida.
Once they were back on track and flying in the right direction, Darren realized that no one knew what was going on with their plane. He thought to himself, "I gotta figure out how to tell somebody." He kept hitting buttons, but nothing was working. What was he going to do?
Calling for Help
They had to figure out how to contact someone on the ground. When Darren put on the headset, he realized something was not right. The bottom of the cords was all frayed! He needed a new headset and STAT. Harrison turned to Franck and asked for his headset. He connected it and began trying to contact anyone who could help him.
Darren recalled, "But I kept hitting the wrong button on the radio. It took me 20 minutes before I figured out how to get it working." Once he had realized his mistake, he was able to patch through to Fort Pierce Tower, which is part of Florida's Treasure Coast International Airport.
“Serious Situation Here”
"This is Triple Three Lima Delta. I've got a serious situation here. My pilot has gone incoherent. I have no idea how to fly the airplane," the panicky passenger pleaded. The message must have come as a shock to those on the ground. How could someone who has no idea how to fly an airplane be in the pilot's seat?
There was no time to waste on the gravity of the situation. Darren needed help ASAP. His message was quick and to the point. Miraculously, he got a response from the folks on the ground. Hope remained for the Floridian and the others on board: "Roger. What's your position?" the control tower answered.
Lost at Sea
The control tower wanted to know where the Cessna 208 was located so they could better assist. However, there was a slight problem on board. All the GPS systems were out, so Darren had no real way of knowing where he was. He responded to air control in the best way he could - with the truth.
"I have no idea. I can see the coast of Florida in front of me. And I have no idea." With nothing more to go off of, the people on the ground had to get to work to try and locate the aircraft. They instructed him to "Maintain wing level, and just try to follow the coast, either north or southbound."
Following the Signs
The team on the ground was working as fast as they possibly could to try and help Darren and the others. They raced to give him instructions through the radio. "Just continue the slow descent until you get to 5,000 feet," they told him. Having them for assistance must have been such a relief for the abandoned passenger.
They instructed him to continue either north or southbound over the beach, and they would get him to an airport so that he could land. Darren followed their instructions and continued flying the aircraft. While it was another step forward, there was still a long way to go until he was home.
It took some time, but the Cessna 208 was finally spotted by an air traffic control worker named Joshua. He noticed the plane was about 20 miles away from the Boca Raton Airport. They were so close to getting back to land. However, there was one tiny problem: Darren was going to have to land this thing.
"When I was flying and saw the state of Florida, at that second, I knew, I'm going to land there," Darren said. "I don't know what the outcome is going to be. I don't know how it's going to happen. But I'm going to have to land this airplane, because there is no other option."
Robert Morgan was enjoying his break from work and reading a book. The air traffic control worker had a love for flying and also worked as a flight instructor. So, when those helping Darren realized he would need assistance landing, there was one obvious guy to call - Mr. Morgan.
Morgan recalled, "I walked into the room and my operation supervisor said, 'Here's the situation: 'We've got a plane with an unconscious pilot and the passenger is flying it. Since you're a flight instructor, we need you to try and help him land." Morgan didn't hesitate and jumped into action.
Do Not Panic
The intstructor coached Darren through every step along the way. He told the first-time pilot to keep descending until he was at 2,500 feet. There was only one slight hiccup: Morgan was not as familiar with this particular aircraft that Darren was flying.
This could have been a major disaster. Luckily, Robert Morgan knew plenty of other Cessna models and was able to coach the passenger-turned-pilot through every step. Morgan recalled that Darren also did not seem nervous. "He really seemed like he was going to do whatever it took to save his butt," he recalled.
Facing the Facts
As Darren inched closer to the airport, there was only one thing left to do: He had to land the plane safely, with Morgan coaching him along the way. Darren recalled the moments before he landed, "As I was circling back over the runway to make another approach, I asked him, 'Hey, once I land, how do I stop this thing?'"
He continued, "I was still barefoot at that point, and he explained how to gently work the brake pedals with my feet." As the aircraft descended toward the runway, there was so much going on in both of their heads. "I was worried, thinking he was either gonna cartwheel down the runway or crash," Morgan recalled.
Making the Landing
At the last minute, Morgan told Darren that the plane was coming in too hot. He had to make a last-minute adjustment - and he had to do it fast. "Robert told me I was coming in too fast, so I told Russ to grab the throttle and dump it on the floor, wondering if that would cause the plane to fall out of the sky," Darren recalled.
Morgan gave one final instruction, "Focus your eyes on the end of the runway. It's going to get wider and wider." And then, much to his shock, the plane touched land. He had actually done it. "After we finally stopped, I called up to the control tower again and asked, 'Hey guys, one last question: How do I turn this thing off?'" Darren laughed.
Against all odds, Darren Harrison flew and landed an aircraft. When he turned off the plane, he took off his headset, overwhelmed with emotion. Tears began pouring down his face. All his pent-up fears, anxieties, and surely relief were finally coming out.
"I just lost it. I started praying this prayer of thanks for letting us land safely. And the biggest prayer of all was for Ken because he was in bad shape," Darren gushed. Paramedics and airport personnel, including Robert Morgan, rushed onto the runway. When Darren was introduced to his flying coach, they shared an emotional hug.
What Happened to the Pilot?
The plane had landed safely, but they still had another emergency: Ken Allen, the pilot who had gone unconscious, had to be taken care of. Now that they were back on the ground, they were able to get him help. Immediately, paramedics took him away from the runway and rushed him to the nearest hospital.
Allen suffered from an aortic dissection, which is due to a tear in the heart's primary artery. He underwent surgery and has since recovered from the incident. During a press conference, he recalled the moments before he passed out, "My head was pounding, and I was seeing little blue lights."
The entire time Darren Harrison was on the plane, he never called his wife to tell her what was happening. He waited until they were safely back on the ground to give her a call and update her on the situation. Thankfully, he only had good news to share with her.
"People said, 'what if you had crashed and died? You could have at least called her, you could have reached out to her, you had time,'" Darren explained. "In my mind, I knew I wasn't going to die, and the thought never crossed my mind to call and tell my wife 'bye.'"
When Savannah Guthrie from the Today Show asked Darren what it was like to hear Britney's voice again, he responded, "It was one of the biggest reliefs because I was safe." He also said, "I'm just a guy who was trying to survive." But he did more than survive. He defied the odds.
In the end, everything was okay, and there was a happy ending to this wild turn of events. Since that fateful flight, Darren has appeared on the Today Show and was featured in People magazine. He and Britney have also welcomed their baby girl into the world. One day she will know how much of a hero her daddy is.