DENVER – A woman whose pilot-husband was having trouble breathing and speaking took over the controls of a small airplane during a flight from California to Colorado and flew toward a nearby airport while receiving guidance from ground controllers and another pilot, authorities said.
The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday released audio and a transcript of the May 17 incident.
"Have you ever flown an aircraft before?" asked the other pilot, who was flying a Great Lakes Airlines flight in the area and was in radio contact with the woman. "Do you have any experience?"
"No," the woman replies.
The Great Lakes pilot instructed the woman on how to turn on the autopilot function and begin a controlled descent.
"Hang on, hang on. I'm trying to get him to put auto ... autopilot," the woman said. "I don't know how to do this."
"There should be a button on the autopilot panel that says H-D-G for heading," the Great Lakes pilot said a few minutes later. "You want to push that. There should be a big knob you should turn."
The FAA declined to release the names of the pilot and the passenger, citing privacy concerns, and the specifics of the man's medical problem weren't available. The single-engine Cirrus SR22 is registered to the Colorado Springs-based Alcar Aviation. Records at the Colorado Secretary of State show the registered agent for the business is Albert Briccetti.
The couple was flying from San Bernardino, Calif., to Colorado Springs, Colo. The woman spoke to KCNC-TV in Denver on Wednesday about the ordeal.
"I was terrified — terrified," she said.
During a routine conversation earlier in the flight, an air traffic controller in Longmont, Colo. — Charlie Rohrer — noticed that the single-engine plane's 70-year-old pilot appeared to have difficulty breathing, KCNC reported. The woman said her husband was slurring his speech and was unable to push the buttons.
"On a routine flight from California to Colorado, at 17,000 feet, I became unable to communicate and manage the flying," the pilot said in a statement released by the FAA.
The plane began to make erratic maneuvers, and as Rohrer tried to get back in touch with the small plane, the Great Lakes pilot — who was on the same radio frequency — offered assistance to Rohrer.
"As we came out under the cloud layer, the other aircraft was able to make visual contact with our plane. Knowing that was also a comfort to my wife," the pilot said.
Rohrer told the Great Lakes pilot that he believed the smaller plane's pilot was having trouble functioning because he was hypoxic, a condition that results from a lack of enough oxygen. Both the pilot and his wife were wearing oxygen masks because of the Rocky Mountain altitudes.
"I can't talk much cause I, I got to hold the oxygen to my face and the mic and the thing," the woman said. "I can't tell what's going on."
With the Great Lakes pilot's help, the woman eventually flipped on the autopilot function, though the pilot said his wife had directions for the emergency parachute in her lap, just in case.
At one point, the plane swerved away from its emergency landing route and headed toward the high terrain of the San Juan mountains in southwestern Colorado. Rohrer told the woman to turn away from the mountains.
"If you continue northbound, it's quite a bit higher," Rohrer said. "I need you to start turning southbound as soon as you can."
Eventually the plane headed toward lower terrain and began dropping in elevation. The woman said her husband was becoming more lucid.
The husband came on the radio and indicated he would continue his course to Colorado Springs. But Rohrer warned that, to do that, he would have to climb to 17,000 feet and risk becoming hypoxic again.
"OK, you're still not, uh, sounding like you're very coherent," Rohrer said. "Suggest heading (to) Farmington."
The pilot later landed the plane safely in Farmington, N.M. - AP