Passenger Lands Plane After Pilot Collapses, Dies -- Renton Air- Traffic Controller Praised

RENTON - After saving one life and preventing a potential airplane crash, air-traffic controller David Littlefield was quick to give the credit to someone else.

"The hero is the guy who brought his friend's plane back," said Littlefield, 40, as he walked through the front door of his Federal Way home last night.

As for himself, Littlefield said, the event was "just another day on the job."

But for Leland Capps, 52, of Kent, the day was anything but normal.

A flight on a sunny day turned into a life-and-death struggle as he was forced to land the plane - with Littlefield's help - after his friend and pilot suffered a heart attack.

Capps crash-landed the single-engine Cessna float plane and survived, but pilot Raymond Ihrke, 46, of Federal Way, was pronounced dead. The two men had taken off from Renton Municipal Airport not long before Ihrke became incapacitated, authorities said.

About 1:45 p.m. yesterday, Littlefield, an air-traffic controller at Renton Municipal Airport, managed over the radio to instruct Capps - who is not a pilot - how to land the float plane.

After Ihrke lost consciousness, Capps radioed air traffic controllers at the Renton airport, said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Mitch Barker.

According to a tape of exchanges between Capps and the air traffic tower, Capps made it clear he didn't have experience flying a plane:

Capps: Yes sir, I'm in trouble up here. My pilot's passed out on me, and I'm not an experienced float-plane pilot. Can I get someone to help me? . . . I need somebody there to take care of him when I get in, if I ever do.

Tower: OK, I'm with you, sir. Can you tell me exactly where you are, sir?

Capps: Somewhere close to Microsoft, going over there.

Tower: Do you have control of the aircraft?

Capps: As best I can, yes, sir.

Tower: OK. Are you a pilot, sir?

Capps: Beg your pardon?

Tower: Are you a pilot, sir? An experienced pilot?

Capps: No, sir, I'm not.

Tower: OK, I'm going to put a pilot on with you and, ahh, we're going to get you back into the airport.

Capps: Thank you.

Littlefield, a pilot and apparently the only certified flight instructor working yesterday afternoon in the airport's tower, was given the assignment of talking Capps down.

At a news conference today, Littlefield said he remained calm during the ordeal.

"It was unusual to say the least. Obviously, it's a very technical undertaking," Littlefield said, referring to the type of instruction he had to give Capps.

". . . . You almost have to think of it as speaking to a kindergartner."

Littlefield said Capps did a fine job.

"He's the hero. Leland's the hero. I'm amazed at how well Leland did," Littlefield said.

Especially trying, he said, were those periods when Capps was not operating the plane's radio properly and there were breaks in communication.

"Seconds seemed like minutes," Littlefield said.

Capps tried once unsuccessfully to land the float plane in the water, said Barker. On the second try, he landed it at the shoreline of Lake Washington.

The floats collapsed, and the plane slid out of the lake, skidded across the runway on its belly and came to rest on grass. The plane sustained heavy damage.

Capps, who climbed out after landing, was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where he was treated for scrapes and released, authorities said. He declined to be interviewed.

"The guy by some miracle successfully landed the plane," said Woody Cummings, an FAA duty officer.

Other people in the control tower contacted emergency medical units as the plane was being brought in.

"It's . . . just a case of all of us doing what we had been trained to do," Littlefield said.

Barker said the airport control tower staff received two calls of congratulations this morning from Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena and President Clinton.

Wife knew it was him

Littlefield's wife, Nancy, and 14-year-old stepdaughter, Stephanie Macek, were driving home about 3:30 p.m. when they heard news on the radio that an air-traffic controller had coached a nonpilot to a safe landing.

"I knew it was Dave," said Nancy Littlefield. "If anyone was going to talk anyone down, it was Dave. He's a pilot. Steph and I refer to him as `Safety Dave.' "

When they got home, she said, there was a message from her husband saying that something had come up at work and he'd be home a couple of hours late.

She called him immediately and reached a co-worker, who told her that her husband had been a hero.

Ironically, said Nancy Littlefield, her husband told her over the phone that he thought he could have done a better job.

David Littlefield once before had used the radio to help someone land a plane, she said.

In Idaho several years ago, he helped a student pilot on a solo flight land a plane after she lost her nerve.

"Dave is extremely focused," his wife said, adding, "The task at hand will be the center of attention."

Still, his feat yesterday seemed difficult to fathom, she said.

"He had to visualize that plane - and tell this guy (what) to do. I'm amazed. I am truly amazed."

13 years as controller

She said her husband has worked as an air traffic controller since 1983 and has worked at Renton Municipal Airport since 1991.

David Littlefield declined to comment much last night, saying he would give more information at a news conference after he had a night to think about things.

"I'm going to hold my tongue until tomorrow," he said, adding, "I feel for the family of the deceased pilot."

Landing a float plane without training or experience is a near-miraculous feat because of the extreme hand-eye coordination required of even the most seasoned pilots, say those who know.

Charlie Church, a flight instructor at Kenmore Air Harbor at the north end of Lake Washington, said landing a single-engine seaplane "is a very sensitive thing because for any change in power setting you need to make a different setting on the yoke that controls the pitch of the aircraft."

"There are a lot of forces involved - drag and thrust from the engine opposing each other, the lift of the wing against the gravity of the Earth." Church said some pilots licensed for landing at airports have difficulty mastering water landings.

The degree of difficulty on a scale of 1 to 10 averages "about a 7 or 8. There definitely are a lot of 10s, but there also are 4s and 5s. There are water conditions which can vary a lot, obstructions, water traffic and air conditions," he said. Seattle Times staff reporters Dee Norton and Jennifer Bjorhus contributed to this report