TAMPA, Fla. – Doug White and his family had just enjoyed a smooth takeoff and were ascending through the clouds when the pilot guiding their twin-engine plane tilted his head back and made a guttural sound.
The pilot, Joe Cabuk, was unconscious. And though White had his pilot's license, he had never flown a plane as large as this.
"I need help. I need a King Air pilot to talk to. We're in trouble," he radioed.
Then he turned to his wife and two daughters: "You all start praying hard." Behind him, his wife trembled. Sixteen-year-old Bailey cried. Eighteen-year-old Maggie threw up.
White, 56, landed the plane on his own about 30 minutes later, coaxed through the harrowing ordeal by air traffic controllers who described exactly how to bring the aircraft to safety. The pilot died, but White somehow managed.
When a controller asked whether he was on autopilot, White replied: "I'm in the good Lord's hands flying this Niner Delta Whiskey," giving the code for the aircraft.
White had logged about 150 hours recently flying a single-engine Cessna 172 but had no experience flying the faster, larger King Air. He declared an emergency to air traffic controllers — White already knew how to use the radio. On Sunday afternoon, he got his first lesson landing the larger craft.
They were on their way home from Marco Island, where they'd traveled after his brother died from a heart attack the week before. White owns the King Air plane and leases it out through his company, Archibald, La.-based White Equipment Leasing LLC.
White got his pilot's license in 1990, but said 18 years had passed until he recently started flying again.
White had his wife try to remove the pilot from his seat — afraid that he'd slump down and hit the controls.
But the space was too small. His wife couldn't remove him. They strapped him back in, and White sat at the adjacent set of controls.
White knew they were supposed to stop at 10,000 feet, but he watched as they ascended thousands of feet higher.
Flying the Cessna, White said he's never gone higher than 7,000 feet.
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, 43-year-old Kari Sorenson. Sorenson got out his flight checklists, manuals and cockpit layout sheets and issued instructions to the controller. The controller relayed the process to White.
Sorenson told the New Haven Register he hadn't been up in a King Air since 1994 — but he still had all the manuals, and it came back easily.
"After 3,500 hours in an airplane you get right back in it pretty quickly," said Sorenson, who has more than two decades of flight experience.
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. They had planned on dropping White off there, where he'd left his truck, and having Cabuk continue on home to Louisiana with the rest of the family.
Flying by hand, White navigated the plane through the descent.
"When I touch down, if I ever touch down, do I just kill the throttle or what?" he asked.
"That's correct," the controller replied. "When you touch down, slowly kill the throttle."
They landed safety shortly after 2 p.m. Fire trucks and EMTs were waiting on ground.
"Looks good from here," the controller said. "Good job."
White said they tried for about 30 minutes to revive Cabuk, the pilot.
The medical examiner's office has not yet determined his cause of death.
A day after the ordeal, White said he could never have done it without the help of the air traffic controllers.
"Heartfelt thanks," he said. "They don't make near enough money, don't get near enough respect for what they do."