‘The fact that no kids were killed was just amazing’
Terry Duzan drove his bus full of Andrews High School…
The pilot was dead.
As the private plane kept climbing on autopilot, topping 10,000 feet, Doug White told his wife, Terri, and two daughters to stay in the cabin and pray.
“If I hadn’t been a Christian, I know we would’ve all probably been hysterical,” Terri said. “But none of us went screaming and hollering.”
While his family huddled together in prayer, Doug tried to take control of the aircraft.
Despite only limited flight experience in a single-propeller aircraft, he knew the only way to save his family was to land the unfamiliar twin-engine plane himself — with help from a “guardian angel” on the ground and maybe divine providence from above.
This real story of the Christian couple, members of the Forsythe Church of Christ in Monroe, La., and their daughters, Maggie and Bailey, inspired the movie “On a Wing and a Prayer.” The film, starring Dennis Quaid and Heather Graham, comes out Good Friday, April 7, on Amazon Prime Video.
The harrowing experience began on Easter Sunday in 2009 as the Whites returned from the funeral for Doug’s brother, Jeff, in the South Florida community of Marco Island.
The family chartered a private plane to take Doug back to Jackson, Miss. — where he’d left his truck — and Terri, Maggie and Bailey back to Monroe.
Doug, 56 at the time, asked to sit in the cockpit of the King Air 200 with 67-year-old pilot Joe Cabuk. Doug had been learning to fly and had about 25 hours of training in a smaller, single-engine Cessna 172.
“I like looking out the window and listening on the radio,” he told Cabuk.
Takeoff was normal, albeit bumpy, as the plane climbed through the clouds.
The other family members were getting settled in — Terri, then 55, reading; Maggie, an 18-year-old student at Louisiana State University, doing her homework; and Bailey, 16, napping.
But then Doug realized Cabuk was slumped over in his chair, not responding.
“Terri!” Doug yelled from the cockpit, which was separated from the cabin by a partition.
His voice was “kind of gruff,” Terri told The Christian Chronicle. “And when I got up there to him, he kind of tilted his head to the left, like ‘Look over there.’ And Joe — his head was bent over, and spit was coming out of his mouth. And I — just instinct — I just started shaking his shoulder, saying ‘Joe! Joe!’
“And finally, Doug said, ‘Terri, leave him alone. He’s dead.’ And that’s when my heart went into overdrive.”
Then Doug did the only thing he knew how to do in the King Air — use the radio.
“I’ve got to declare an emergency,” he told Miami air traffic control. “My pilot’s unconscious. I need help up here.”
The first air traffic controller to respond wasn’t able to help Doug figure out the flight controls, which were significantly more complex than the plane he’d trained in. But then Lisa Grimm, another controller with piloting experience, was called in.
Doug describes her as his guardian angel.
She talked him through turning off the autopilot and flying the plane manually. She helped him switch radio channels to the Fort Myers airport, about 50 miles north of Marco Island.
An air traffic controller there directed him out into the Gulf of Mexico for a landing approach.
“And I can’t see anything,” Doug told the Chronicle. “It’s a baby blue sky going into a baby blue ocean. … You can’t tell up from down. I know I’m heading due west, but he’s wanting me to turn left to start making a U-turn and head back toward land. But I’m scared to turn because I’m afraid I’m going to flip the airplane upside down.”
Over the radio, he made his predicament clear.
“I’m in the good Lord’s hands flying this,” he said.
He eventually got the plane turned toward the runway in Fort Myers, but the most difficult part was still ahead — the landing.
Fortunately, three more factors were on Doug’s side: The clouds had dissipated. The wind was gone. And one of the air traffic controllers in Fort Myers knew someone with direct King Air experience.
That controller called his friend, all the way in Connecticut.
The friend had a poster of the plane’s cockpit in his office and relayed instructions through air traffic control to Doug until the plane — and the White family — was safely on the ground. The entire ordeal lasted about 50 minutes.
“When we landed, and all of us got off, including Doug, we just kind of did a little group hug, Terri said. “And that’s when we lost it.
“I mean, Doug, he does not show his emotions very much. But I could tell he was upset. And me and the girls were bawling then.”
Later that night, the Whites took another plane — commercial this time — from Fort Myers to Jackson to get Doug’s truck and drive the rest of the way to Louisiana.
“It gets to a point where you quit asking why. You know, the greatest example of why in the history of the world came from the cross. … Instead of asking why, I just say thank you.”
“All the way home … Doug and I were saying, ‘What if this?’ and ‘What if that?’” Terri recalled. “Like what if (the pilot) had already dropped Doug off in Jackson? … We would have just flown to about Oklahoma and crashed and burned.”
But Doug has since stopped asking questions.
“I don’t know why it happened. I don’t know why the pilot died when he did,” he said. “Why didn’t he drop dead on the ramp loading our equipment? Why didn’t he drop dead flying down there from Georgia? I don’t know.
“But it gets to a point where you quit asking why. You know, the greatest example of why in the history of the world came from the cross. But it gets the point eventually … instead of asking why, I just say thank you.”
Several years later, Brian Egeston, a writer and producer, approached the Whites about making a movie.
It wasn’t the first media attention they had received. News crews had been on the scene the moment they landed, and TV personalities the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres had invited them on their shows.
The Whites had turned down many of those interviews. But they were interested in Egeston’s pitch of a faith-based film and allowed him to come spend a few days with them to write a script.
Eventually, the film was picked up by MGM and Amazon Studios and titled “On a Wing and a Prayer.”
Doug and Terri, now 70 and 69, got to talk back and forth with Quaid and Graham, the actors who portray them, to help capture their emotions and mannerisms.
The couple, married for 34 years, have seen the film and think it’s a faithful — and faith-full — representation, albeit with some dramatization.
Family members have told Doug that Quaid’s portrayal is “absolutely eerie.”
Friends and members of the Forsythe church will be guests at a private screening of the movie in Monroe.
John Dobbs, Forsythe’s preacher, said there’s been some buzz and excitement among the church’s members about it.
Doug “likes to make things happen,” Dobbs said, “and it doesn’t surprise me at all that, given that circumstance, that’s the action that he would take. …
“After it all happened, I thought, I hope I have sense enough to realize why God’s saved us.”
“One thing I know about them: They’re serving people.”
Most of all, the Whites hope the movie can be an evangelistic tool, sowing a seed in viewers’ hearts.
“After it all happened, I thought, I hope I have sense enough to realize why God’s saved us,” Terri said. “There has to be a reason, you know, and for a long time, I didn’t know what it was.
“And then when they started talking about that movie, it clicked. I thought, that’s got to be it, because it’s a faith-based movie. And I’m hoping that it’s going to open a lot of people’s eyes and turn them around and make them Christians. That’s my whole plan.”
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