Henry George Anhalt had never flown a plane before Sunday.
But when the pilot of the small plane carrying him and his family collapsed at the controls, he had to learn — and quick.
Anhalt, his wife and their three sons were on a private flight home from a religious mission in the Bahamas when their pilot, Kristopher Pearce, 36, collapsed. He was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
To make matters worse, the small aircraft was running out of fuel.
“When I tried to switch it over to the other tank, it would start sputtering and sputtering so I would change it back to the empty one,” he said.
A Cry for Help
Ten minutes out of Florida’s Winter Haven airport and 1,000 feet in the air, Anhalt did just about the only thing he could: radio for help.
As luck would have it, a flight instructor was flying nearby.
“When you hear the fellow screaming on the radio mayday, mayday, it’s the call you never want to hear,” says Rob Garcia, who was taking lessons nearby from part-time flight instructor Dan McCullough.
The plane, a Piper Cherokee 6, is considered a high-performance aircraft that requires advanced training to fly. But McCullough says talking him down was no problem.
“The only real disadvantage I had over any other time I’ve done it is I couldn’t actually been in the airplane with him,” he said. Anhalt, he added, did not seem frightened.
”I told him great job, that was his first flight lesson, he needed to find a log book and I’d sign him off on his solo,” said McCullough.
Coming In for a Landing
While Anhalt, 33, practiced controlling the aircraft, his wife, Becky, also 33; and sons Jeremiah, 11; Jacob, 7; and Joseph, 2, were buckled up in the passenger seats behind him.
“I just gave him directions how to get it over the runway and then to cut the engine,” McCullough said. “I had to keep him level. If he came in too steep, he’d dive into the ground. If he came in too far back, he’d stall.”
Thirty minutes after taking the controls, Anhalt landed safely, although witnesses say it wasn’t a pretty sight.
The Piper hit the runway hard, bounced, took a sharp turn, and crossed a grassy median before coming to rest in a ditch nearby.
Anhalt says he may take up flying lessons someday. But for now, he’s happy enough to be on the ground.
The cause of Pearce’s death is not yet known.
ABCNEWS affiliate WFTV in Orlando and The Associated Press contributed to this report.