Louisiana pilot dies during flight, passenger lands plane safely

Enterprise News Service

FORT MYERS, Fla. — A plane piloted by an Oak Ridge, La. man left Marco Island with no problems on Sunday, April 12. Shortly after rising into the air, the pilot had a fatal seizure. Another passenger flew the plane to safety with air traffic control assistance.

Joe Cabuk, 67, of Oak Ridge, was one of five individuals on a Beechcraft King Air twin-engine plane Sunday. Cabuk was set to fly the plane from Florida to Jackson, Miss. According to reports, Cabuk had been in the air with the plane set to auto-pilot for only 20 minutes before he lost consciousness. The plane was increasing altitude to 10,000 feet when this happened.

One passenger, Doug White of Archibald, had logged about 150 hours flying a single-engine Cessna 172 but did not have experience with the larger plane. Kathleen Bergen, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration in Atlanta, said White was sitting in the right seat of the plane when Cabuk lost consciousness.

White, 56, said he watched the altitude continue to rise as he declared an emergency to air traffic controllers. He had learned how to use the radio from working with the smaller plane.

"We've had situations where passengers land airplanes before, but this is the first time I actually heard a controller actually tell the passenger to push this button and turn this knob," said Steve Wallace, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers in Miami. "It's a heck of an Easter story."

Wallace was working in the Miami air traffic control center when his air controllers couldn't reach the plane's pilot at 2 p.m. Sunday. The Miami center deals with planes at high altitude - 10,000 or more feet - in South Florida.

"We tried a couple times and didn't hear anything," Wallace said. "Then all of a sudden, we hear a passenger say, 'This is November 55 Niner Delta Whisky, and my pilot is passed out. We need help now.'"

Despite dealing with 15 other planes in the air at the time, the Miami air traffic control center helped the man disengage autopilot, turn the plane around and descend to Fort Myers.

White tried to stay calm and listen to the air traffic controllers as they relayed instructions.

“It was a focused fear,” he said. “And I was in some kind of a zone that I can’t explain.”

One of the air traffic controllers called a friend in Connecticut certified in flying the King Air.

He got out his flight checklists, manuals and cockpit layout sheets and issued instructions to the controller.

The controller relayed the process to White thousands of feet above.

At one point, White said he tried putting the autopilot back on, but it steered the plane north, as Cabuk had programmed in the flight’s destination in Jackson, Miss.

Flying by hand, White navigated the plane through the descent and safely landed shortly after 2 p.m. at Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers.

“He had experience as a single-engine pilot,” Bergen said. “With the help of air traffic controllers, he was able to bring the plane down. He knew all the right questions to ask and all the radio terminology.”

"The passenger was a certified pilot, but not in this plane, so he needed this help," said Alex Caldwell, spokeswoman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "It's not the like driving a Ford Focus and an F-150. There's a big difference with planes."

Wallace said the passenger deserves all the credit for the safe landing.

"I was watching him on the radar and he was able to hold the airplane level, make the turn and land on his first shot," Wallace said.

Fire trucks and EMTs were waiting on ground. White said they tried for about 30 minutes to revive Cabuk, the pilot. He didn’t survive. The medical examiner’s office has not yet determined his cause of death.

Cabuk was a retired Air Force officer, who owned Atari computers since 1984. He held the title of Louisiana Grand Master and was an elected officer of the Monroe Barak Shriners as a treasurer in January 2009. Funeral arrangements are incomplete at this time under the direction of Mulhearn Funeral Home in Rayville.