May 26, 2011 -- The Federal Aviation Administration released audio and details today from a terrifying drama that occurred in the skies last week when a woman who had never flown a plane was forced to take the controls after her pilot-husband fell ill.
"I'm trying to help. Hang on," said the woman, who has not been identified.
She and her pilot-husband, 70, were flying a small Cirrus propeller plane from San Bernardino, Calif., to Colorado Springs, Colo., on May 17, when he appeared to lose consciousness as the aircraft reached 16,000 feet.
Air traffic controllers at the Denver control center feared the pilot was suffering from a lack of oxygen because of the high altitude.
"I think you might be experiencing some hypoxia," said Charlie Rohrer, an air traffic controller, on the audio. "Would you like a lower altitude?"
The pilot replied, "One Whiskey Alpha," the name used to identify the Cirrus.
"You're barely readable," the controller said.
The pilot nearly passed out and his wife frantically contacted air traffic control.
"Hang on, hang on," she said. "I'm trying to get him to put it on autopilot. I don't know [how] to do this."
The pilot of a Great Lakes Airlines flight heading to New Mexico was listening in and was familiar with the Cirrus plane. He told the woman what knobs to turn and which buttons to press to get to a lower altitude.
"Are you descending now?" the pilot asked the woman.
"Yes. ... We're at 15,000," she replied.
He asked her whether she'd flown a plane before and she responded: "No."
Rohrer, a 22-year veteran, told the woman to turn the plane around and head southeast to avoid hitting mountains.
The woman, who said she was having breathing problems, as well, said: "I got to get down."
Although the Cirrus was equipped with an emergency parachute that could have lowered the aircraft to the ground, it was not necessary because as the plane descended its pilot began to wake up.
Because the Cirrus pilot was still woozy, the Great Lakes pilot told the air traffic controller to declare an emergency.
"He's totally incapacitated," the Great Lakes pilot said. "You need to get him [lower] now."
But the Cirrus pilot replied, "I am not totally incapacitated."
The air traffic controller persuaded the pilot to land the plane and it eventually did in Farmington, N.M.
Kassi Mohlenkamp, a spokeswoman for Great Lakes Airlines, emailed a statement to ABC News lauding its pilots.
"Great Lakes is extremely proud of our pilots to take the initiative to help the Cirrus pilot make it safely to the ground," she wrote. "It shows the true compassion our pilots have for the industry and the knowledge of the duties they perform on a daily basis."
Rohrer expressed gratitude to two other controllers and a supervisor who directed other planes and kept them out of the airspace as he helped the couple.
"The successful outcome of this situation was the result of good training and teamwork," he said in a prepared statement.