Passenger-Turned-Hero Pilot: “I Can’t Die Today”

When Darren Harrison boarded the small Cessna 208 from the Bahamas, he was excited to head home to his wife in Lakeland, Florida. However, it wasn’t long after takeoff that things went horribly wrong. Harrison started thinking about his pregnant wife and knew he had to do anything to get home to her.

Darren Harrison / Darren Harrison / Franck Allen / Small Cessna 208.
Source: TODAY

As Harrison jumped into action, all he could think was, “I can’t die today.” He may not consider himself a hero, but Harrison’s quick thinking saved everyone aboard the Cessna 208. He was a passenger-turned-pilot who lived to tell the harrowing story of how he flew a plane to safety.

A Normal Trip Home

On May 10, 2022, Darren Harrison boarded a small Cessna 208 in the Bahamas to fly back to his home in Lakeland, Florida. He spent a few days fishing with his friends before heading home to his pregnant wife and job at the flooring and design business he ran with his father.

A portrait of Darren Harrison.
Darren Harrison. Photo by Josh Letchworth

Harrison was one of two passengers on the small single-engine plane that took off from Marsh Harbor. It’s only about a three-and-a-half-hour flight to the Bahamas from the Lakeland area, so Harrison got comfortable as the pilot prepared for takeoff. He kicked off his sandals and stared out the window.

His Worst Nightmare

Shortly after takeoff, Harrison heard the pilot, Ken Allen, say, “Guys, I gotta tell you, I don’t feel right. I’ve got a headache, and everything is fuzzy.” A few moments later, Allen passed out, and the plane started falling from the sky. The small aircraft took a nosedive, heading for the water below.

An image of a plane before taking off.
Source: Flickr

Harrison ran to the front of the plane, desperately trying to rouse Allen. But it wasn’t working, and he could see the white caps on the waves below. Panic set in, and Harrison knew he only had a few moments to live unless he did something.

He Had to Do Something

Harrison felt the G-force pushing him back as the plane continued to fall. He had never flown a plane before, and none of the knobs or levers on the panel looked familiar. He tried to figure out how they worked because he was running out of time to save the plane.

An image of a plane above the Bahamas.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

He started to think, “If you don’t touch those controls, you’re going to die in the next twenty seconds.” He thought about his wife at home, who was six months pregnant. Harrison needed to get home to her, so he told himself, “I can’t die today. This can’t happen.”

Using His Knowledge

Harrison had flown on small planes several times and asked the pilots many technical questions. Although he had never flown a plane himself, he was always curious about how things worked. Harrison used his knowledge to jump into action. The Cessna 208 had dropped 3,600 feet in 16 seconds.

An image of a plane before taking off.
Source: Bahamas Air Tour

He quickly reached over Allen’s body, grabbing what he thought was called “the stick,” and gently pulled it back. Harrison knew if he pulled too hard, the wings would rip off due to the speed of the falling plane. Instead, he slowly pulled the stick back, and the plane started to go up.

A Moment to Breathe

Harrison got the plane to reach 9,000 feet. It gave him a moment to breathe and figure out what his next steps would be. He needed to get Allen out of the pilot’s seat so that he could take control.

Harrison tells his story.
Darren Harrison. Source: TODAY

In the seat next to Allen was his friend Russ Franck, who often tagged along on flights to keep him company. Harrison asked Franck if he could keep the plane steady while he unbuckled Allen and brought him to the back of the plane.

Getting Into the Pilot’s Seat

After carrying Allen to the back of the plane, Harrison climbed into the pilot’s seat. He didn’t buckle himself in completely in case they crashed, thinking it would slow him down if he needed to escape. Harrison needed to figure out what his next steps would be.

A still of Harrison during an interview.
Darren Harrison. Source: TODAY

Everything on the display panel was black except the gauge that monitored the altitude. Harrison had no idea what direction they were headed in because all he could see was an endless expanse of ocean. Luckily, there was an old-school compass on the dash.

Calling for Help

The plane was heading south instead of northwest, so Harrison had to turn it around. He finally got the plane headed in the right direction, but he quickly realized no one else knew what was happening. Harrison fumbled around with the buttons, trying to work the radio.

A photo of a plane changing its direction.
Source: Flying Magazine

Harrison kept hitting the wrong button, and it took him 20 minutes before he figured out how to work it. The Florida coastline came into view, and another realization hit Harrison. He thought, “Now I gotta figure out how to land this thing.”

Help on the Ground

When Harrison got the radio working, he put a call out on the radio. He said, “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 an airplane.”

Harrison poses for a portrait inside the plane.
Darren Harrison. Photo by Josh Letchworth

The dispatcher asked for the plane’s position, but Harrison had no idea. He told them he could see the Florida coastline. Shortly after his call went out, Harrison was connected to Robert Morgan, an air traffic controller at Palm Beach International Airport, who was also a flight instructor.

Not a Good Situation

Morgan was on his break when he was paged back to the control tower. His supervisor said, “Here’s the situation, we’ve got a plane with an unconscious pilot, and the passenger is flying. Since you’re a flight instructor, we need you to try and help him land.”

An image of a plane during a flight.
Source: Pinterest

Morgan was nervous, thinking, “I wish this was a dream.” However, that wasn’t the case, and he had to help Harrison get to the airport. Harrison told Morgan he had no idea how to fly a plane, but he didn’t sound nervous.

Practicing Control

Inside the plane, Harrison used the coastline to navigate his way to the airport. He practiced controlling the altitude by descending a little and holding the plane steady before ascending again. As Harrison got closer to the airport, Morgan instructed him to descend.

A photo of Harrison and a reporter behind the scenes during an interview.
Darren Harrison, Savannah Guthrie. Source: TODAY

The plane was still at 2,500 feet, so Harrison needed to bring it down while circling the runway. Harrison was circling the runway to make another approach. He asked Morgan, “Once I land, how do I stop this thing?” He started to picture different scenarios.

Staying Calm

Although Harrison worried the wheels would blow off, or the plane would flip upside down into a ditch, he tried to focus on Morgan’s instructions. The idea of getting the plane on the ground seemed daunting even though he kept calm under pressure.

Harrison poses for a portrait with a reporter after an interview.
Darren Harrison, Savannah Guthrie. Source: WIS-TV

Even Morgan worried that Harrison would cartwheel down the runway or crash. He didn’t express those fears to Harrison so he wouldn’t scare the passenger-turned-pilot. Harrison was coming back around for his second approach, still barefoot in the pilot’s seat. Morgan told him how to work the brake pedals.

The Moment of Truth

Harrison lined the plane up with the runway, which got larger and larger as he got closer. He was trying not to be nervous so he wouldn’t make a mistake. Morgan warned him he was coming in too fast, so Harrison asked Franck to grab the throttle.

Morgan speaks during an interview.
Robert Morgan. Source: ABC News

The throttle controlled the fuel flow to the engine, and Franck put it all the way down. Harrison worried it would cause the plane to fall out of the sky. He put the thought out of his mind, and Morgan told him to focus on the end of the runway.

Back on the Ground

Harrison watched the end of the runway as it got wider and wider. The next thing he knew, the plane was back on the ground, bouncing down the runway. He managed to land the plane without blowing the wheels; it was a miracle.

Morgan and Harrison take a picture together.
Robert Morgan, Darren Harrison. Source: NBC News

He was slightly in shock as he brought the plane to a complete stop. Harrison called up to the control tower to ask them how to turn the plane off. It almost didn’t seem real because a little while ago, Harrison had thought he would crash into the Atlantic Ocean.

He Broke Down

As the engine stopped, Harrison took off the headset and threw it on the dash. He broke down crying because he couldn’t believe he was alive and safe. Harrison said, “I started praying this prayer of thanks for letting us land safely.”

An image of the plane minutes before landing.
Source: WPBF

Harrison also prayed for Allen, who was still in bad shape. Harrison knew they could have died, but he was overcome with emotion when he realized he would live to see his wife and hold his child. It took a moment for him to compose himself.

It Was a Miracle

Paramedics and airport personnel swarmed around the plane. They took Allen off the plane, rushing him to the hospital because he had suffered a tear in his aorta. Somehow, the plane didn’t have a scratch on it. It seemed like a miracle that Harrison had managed to pull this off.

A photo of the plane during landing.
Source: WPBF

Harrison and Morgan hugged when they were introduced. It was overwhelming to meet the man who helped him land safely. They were both emotional because the situation could have turned out much differently. It was an incredible moment.

The Scariest Moment

Harrison recalled the scariest moment of the ordeal. He said having to quickly but gently stop the plane diving made him realize how much danger they were really in. By the time he got to the front, all he saw was water, and he knew it was coming quickly.

Harrison is filmed during an interview.
Darren Harrison, Savannah Guthrie. Source: TODAY

Harrison told the Today Show, “When I saw the Florida coast, I thought, ‘I’m going to land there. I don’t know what the outcome is going to be. But I’m going to have to land this plane because there is no other option.’”

He Didn’t Feel Like a Hero

When the news broke about Harrison’s miracle plane ride, he was labeled a hero. However, he didn’t feel like he deserved that title. He said, “People say I’m a hero, but I’m not. I’m just a guy who was trying to survive.”

A portrait of Harrison.
Darren Harrison. Source: Pinterest

Harrison added, “I’m convinced God helped my mind go to a place where I could stay calm, focused, and get it done. It really was a miracle. Actually, it was one miracle after another that kept us alive.” He was just happy to be back on the ground.

Just Doing His Job

When Morgan was asked about the incident, he said he was just doing his job. He felt “it was just on a higher level” than he ever thought he would have to do it. Morgan had previous experience flying a Cessna aircraft (but not that model).

A portrait of Robert Morgan / An image of security officers heading to the plane after landing.
Robert Morgan. Source: CBS News

Morgan shared that Harrison could only give him the plane’s altitude when they first spoke. He helped the novice pilot by giving him clear, short instructions on how to fly. Morgan said Harrison understood everything he said and remained calm the whole time.

Hearing Her Voice

During the experience, Harrison didn’t think to call his wife to say goodbye because he knew he wasn’t going to die. When he landed the plane, he said a prayer and called his wife. It was a relief to hear her voice because he knew he was safe.

An image of officers standing by the plane after landing.
Source: CBS News

However, Harrison’s wife was terrified when she saw his name pop up on her phone 20 minutes before he was supposed to land. She feared something horrible had happened because her sister lost her husband when she was six months pregnant too. Luckily, that wasn’t the case.

Recovering From the Incident

After the plane landed, Allen was rushed into emergency surgery. He suffered a torn aorta, causing him to pass out shortly after takeoff. Doctors thought he had suffered from a stroke before finding the tear. Allen’s doctor said only 50 percent of patients that get to the hospital survive.

An exterior shot of the plane.
Source: TODAY

The pilot was lucky to be alive. Allen understood everything that happened and the severity of the situation. It was also a miracle that he survived the ordeal. Harrison was told Allen wasn’t expected to live when he was brought to the hospital.

He Stayed Calm

One thing everyone noted was that Harrison remained calm throughout the incident. Although it was a frightening situation, he took control and did what he needed to do. Franck said, “He had such a calm, collected demeanor.”

Franck addresses the media during a press conference.
Franck Allen. Source: YouTube

It was like something out of a nightmare, but Franck shared, “It seems absurd to say this, but it felt like a normal landing.” He had taken many flights with Allen but didn’t know what to do at the moment. All he could do was listen to Harrison and Morgan’s instructions.

Thankful to Harrison

Two weeks after the incident, Allen was recovering from his surgery and said he had many people to thank for being alive. He shared that his head started pounding, and he saw little blue lights before he passed out. He was lucky to be alive and make a full recovery.

Allen thanks Harrison during a press conference.
Franck Allen. Source: YouTube

Allen felt grateful to Harrison for taking control and saving his life. It was a freak accident, and he could have easily died. While it was a miracle that Allen survived, he wasn’t the only lucky one. Riley Stephens survived a plane crash that rescuers said he shouldn’t have.

The Lone Survivor

In late September 2021, a single-engine plane crashed in Billings, Montana. Rob and Pam Stephens were killed in the crash, but their son, Riley, miraculously survived. The small plane was found on fire, and Riley was rushed to the hospital after being pulled out of the wreckage.

A photo of Pam and Rob sitting inside the plane.
Pam Stephens, Rob Stephens. Source: KBTX

Unlike Harrison, Rob and Pam had plenty of flight experience. They owned Mission Aviation, a flight school, and Rob had 30 years of professional flight experience. Riley had also been flying with his parents since he was 15, so it was a bizarre incident.

Lucky to Be Alive

When doctors assessed Riley’s injuries, they said it was truly a miracle that he was alive. His doctor said that no one should have survived that plane crash. Riley suffered burns on 70 percent of his body and had to be transferred to a special burn unit.

Riley poses for a picture next to a small plane.
Riley Stephens. Source: Mission Aviation

He was placed in a medically induced coma while undergoing two painful surgeries to remove debris from his hands, chest, and legs. The doctors said his chances of survival were 50-50. But Riley was responding well to his treatment. He also didn’t have any other crash trauma.

No One Knows What Happened

Although it’s been almost a year since the crash, officials are still investigating the cause. Meanwhile, Riley spent months in the hospital for his injuries. He first woke up to ask someone to change the music in his room. He didn’t like country music.

A photo of Riley during recovery with his family.
Riley Stephens and siblings. Source: KRTV

He opened his eyes for a moment for someone to change the song. Riley’s loved ones then created a “Riley-approved” playlist of his favorite songs. They initially didn’t know if he knew about his parents’ deaths. His doctors wanted to keep him calm.

Lots of Support

Although his parents were gone, Riley’s siblings, Steele and Piper, rallied around him throughout his recovery. They showed “tremendous strength” in taking the lead with medical decisions, coordinating visitors, and communicating with other family members. They had to step up during this hard time.

A video still of a plane crashing down.
Source: YouTube

His friends also created a page for people to donate money toward his medical expenses. Family, friends, and strangers raised over $51,000 to assist his family with medical expenses, travel, and accommodations. Riley’s siblings stayed by his side throughout his recovery process.

Long Recovery

Doctors were impressed with how well Riley recovered. He was holding steady and became more responsive. Although he lost his parents, Riley’s story was miraculous. Riley’s arms were put in different positions to avoid scar tissue build-up. His doctors also wanted to preserve his range of motion.

A portrait of Riley, smiling after recovery.
Riley Stephens. Photo by Gofundme

Everyone knew Riley had a long road ahead of him, but he was in the best hands. He handled the procedures well, which was a good sign because most burn victims can’t tolerate much and are more vulnerable to infections.

The Silver Lining

Unlike the first incident, Riley wasn’t lucky enough to save everyone and prevent the plane crash. Authorities didn’t know who was piloting the plane or how it crashed, but the silver lining was that Riley survived. He was ejected from the small plane when authorities found him.

An aerial view of the wrecked plane after crashing down.
Source: YouTube

Someone was watching over him to keep him alive. When Riley became more aware of his situation, he was grateful to be alive. Even though he knew his life would be hard because of the burns, it was more than a miracle that he was the only survivor.

He Beat the Odds

After more than four months in the hospital, Riley walked out of the hospital to many cheers and celebrations. The doctors and nurses lined the hallways as he was wheeled out of the hospital. Everyone knew his story and rooted for him throughout his recovery.

A dated picture of Pam and Rob Stephens.
Rob Stephens, Pam Stephens. Source: Pinterest

His brother Steele shared an update in February 2022 about Riley’s homecoming. Although he was finally going home, Riley would need further treatment to help his burns. His siblings had huge smiles as they walked behind him. It was a glorious moment.