LONDON — The small Cessna plane glided over eastern England on Tuesday evening with exactly two people on board: the pilot and a passenger.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until the pilot suddenly fell ill at the controls. He made an emergency call to Humberside Airport, but the next step was already clear: The passenger would have to land a plane for the first time. On the fly.
Two flight instructors were called to give the passenger an impromptu flying lesson, Humberside Airport spokesman Blair Jacobs said.
One of those instructors, Roy Murray, had just stepped inside his home when he got a call from air traffic control. He headed back to the control tower and tried to calm the passenger down while giving him instructions.
The passenger, who was identified only as John, flew over the runway to familiarize himself with his landing target. Then he circled it again. And then one more time, just to be safe.
“And on the fourth one, he managed it and (did) a beautiful landing, in my opinion,” said Murray.
Finally, the two-seater plane was safely back on the ground, just over an hour after the initial mayday call was made.
Although the landing was successful, the outcome for the pilot was not. Humberside police said he died Tuesday night. Neither his name nor his illness was released, but police are not treating his death as suspicious.
Paul Litten, the airport’s commercial director, expressed his condolences to the pilot’s family but said Murray’s efforts had helped avert a far worse outcome.
“The tragedy that could have unfolded was certainly mitigated,” he said at a news conference Wednesday.
Murray admitted it wasn’t easy — in part because he wasn’t familiar with the cockpit of the aircraft involved.
“The problem was that I’ve never flown that aeroplane. I have flown a Cessna 172 four-seater before, but like all aeroplanes and cars, switches are in a different position,” he said.
“With it being dark, I didn’t want the lad to start looking around the cockpit and lose control of the aeroplane. So unfortunately, he (did) a blind landing, without any lights in the cockpit. All he had was the glare of the lights of the runway.”
With no lights, people on the ground could see only the silhouette of the aircraft as it came in on its final approach — and could only hope for the best.
Murray hadn’t met John before this shared life-or-death moment, nor has he met him since.
But the passenger was admirably calm in the cockpit and responded “quite professionally” despite the circumstances, Murray said.
“I wouldn’t be frightened to fly with him,” Murray added.