DANBURY — Pilot Kari Sorensen answered his phone Sunday afternoon with a cheery, “Hey buddy,” the way he usually does when he knows that Dan Favio, a good friend and former air traffic controller at Danbury Municipal Airport, is on the line.
But sitting in the darkened approach control center at Southwest Florida International Airport on Sunday afternoon, a plane with a dead pilot and four living passengers somewhere above him, Favio quickly let Sorensen, who lives in Danbury, know he wasn’t calling to wish him a happy Easter.
“I have an emergency and I need you,” Favio said.
A twin-engine Beechcraft 200, popularly known as a King Air, had taken off from Marco Island Airport a few minutes earlier en route to Jackson, Miss. But as it climbed toward cruising altitude, the pilot passed out, and one of the passengers, Doug White, a licensed pilot who only had flying time in a single engine plane, was now at the controls.
Sorensen, 43, who has more than 24 years of flying experience, knows the sophisticated King Air like the back of his hand, Favio said.
“He’s the most knowledgeable man about airplanes that I know,” said Favio, who became friends with Sorensen during the two years he worked in Danbury. “In order for us to get these people down safely, we were going to need specific information, like flap speed and approach speed, and Kari can just rattle that stuff off.”
One of the first things that the passenger-turned-pilot needed to know, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Kathleen Bergen said, was how to disengage the automatic pilot that had the King Air in a continuing climb so he could begin the descent to the ground.
“It’s a very complex airplane,” Sorensen said. “But once we got him slowed down, it was easy to work with him. He had flying experience. He just didn’t know the machine.”
White’s previous flight experience included approximately 130 hours in a Cessna 172, but nothing as big as the Super King Air two-engine turboprop aircraft. The plane is registered to the company he owns, Louisiana-based White Equipment Leasing.
The passengers were White’s wife and two teenage daughters. The family was returning home after attending the funeral of White’s brother, who died from a heart attack the week before.
The takeoff was uneventful, but suddenly the pilot, Joe Cabuk, tilted his head back, made a guttural noise, and lost consciousness, White said.
“I need help. I need a King Air pilot to talk to,” he told the controllers.
Favio, 29, has been a controller for nearly eight years, and began working at SWFIA about six months ago. He immediately thought of Sorensen.
Sorensen dug out some of his old King Air manuals, and with Favio asking questions and relaying the answers to another controller who was in radio contact with White, they were able to direct the plane, which was now flying thousands of feet higher than planned, toward the airport.
Fortunately, Favio said, the Southwest Florida International Airport is a back-up landing site for the space shuttle, and its 12,000-foot long runway, one of the longest in the world, provided plenty of room for the inexperienced pilot to set the plane down.
As the plane descended, Favio was counting down the altitude, Sorensen said.
“Five hundred, 400, 300. Then he said, ‘OK, he’s down, I’ll call you back.’ I didn’t know if it was good or bad,” Sorensen said.
The King Air landed smoothly shortly after 2 p.m., about 30 minutes after the ordeal began. Emergency personnel tried to revive Cabuk, but were unsuccessful. The medical examiner hasn’t yet determined his cause of death.
Sorensen comes from a family with a long aviation heritage, not all of it positive. His father died in a plane crash in White Plains, N.Y. in 1981, and his stepfather was one of 230 people killed when TWA Flight 800 exploded and crashed off Long Island in July 1996.
He’s flown everything from single-engine planes to Gulfstream V jets during his career. He lost his job as a corporate pilot more than a year ago and has been “kind of between jobs” since.
“Knowing that people’s lives were saved, just knowing the made it to the ground, is a good thing,” Sorensen said.
Favio said it was difficult to put his feelings into words.
“It’s hard to describe. The thing is, you do this job knowing that it’s one of the most stressful in the world,” he said. “It’s kind of like somebody is hanging off the edge of a building, and you have them by the hand, and you know they can slip away at any moment.”
In an ironic postscript to the story, Favio said that after he left work Sunday evening, the cell phone he used to call Sorensen, which had the Danbury man’s number programmed into it, died in the middle of his next call.
“It wasn’t just the battery, it died completely. I had to get a new one this morning,” Favio said. “And I didn’t have his number memorized.”
Contact John Pirro at email@example.com or at (203) 731-3342.
Go to newstimes.com for more from the interview with Sorenson from Danbury, Conn.