White recalled watching and listening as the pilot, Joe Cabuk, conducted his "climb checklist" upon takeoff from Florida. After the checklist was complete, he said, Cabuk laid his book down. About a minute later, he looked at Cabuk, and "he was just sitting there. He had his chin on his chest, looking down at his lap, but there's nothing in his lap that he needed to be looking at. That's when I kind of looked at him for a minute, probably two, three seconds, and I touched him on the shoulder. I said, 'Joe! Joe!, and that's when his head rolled over to the side, and his eyes rolled back in his head, and his arm fell off the armrest ... and I knew if he wasn't gone then, he was in deep distress, but we were in trouble."
The plane's autopilot was on, and the plane was at about 5,000 feet and climbing, White said. Although he was a certified single-engine pilot and had about 130 flying hours, he had no idea how to fly the much larger Super King Air two-engine turboprop plane.
He told his daughters, " 'Y'all go back there, and I want you to pray hard.' The wife kind of trembled and shook the whole time, and the youngest daughter, Bailey, cried and squalled, and the oldest daughter, Maggie, vomited and threw up three or four times."
"I've got to declare an emergency. My pilot's deceased. I need help," White told the control tower. He had seized the radio after the pilot had fallen unconscious. "I need to get this on the ground. I'm flyin' a King Air." (The King Air is a high-performance turboprop multiengine aircraft.) White had three months of flight lessons, but he had flown only a small, less-sophisticated single-engine plane.
"You find me the longest, widest runway you can, ma'am," White said. At one point he told the controllers that "Me and the good Lord are hand-flying this".
His teenage daughter Maggie White said she felt helpless. "I mean, what could I do? Nothing, just sit there and pray and, you know, throw up," she said.
He described his mindset as being one of "focused fear." "I had a 10,000-pound gorilla by the hand, and it wasn't wanting to cooperate," Asked about his mindset, White said, "I lost it" after landing. His emotion can be clearly heard on the recording as he told air traffic controllers in a shaky voice, "We're down, buddy. Thank you."
The White family was shocked to learn afterwards that they were given only a 5 percent chance of surviving. Here is the riveting ATC recording and radar overlay of what transpired. The "good Lord" indeed was his copilot.