Wing and a Prayer

UPDATED 09/04/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/04/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

The Anhalts couldn't wait to get home. Although the Davenport, Fla., family's weeklong church mission in the Bahamas had been good for the soul, the mugginess and mosquitoes had taken their toll. So on Aug. 5, Henry Anhalt, 34, his wife, Becky, 33, and their three sons—Jeremiah, 11, Jacob, 7, and Joseph, 2—were eager to climb aboard the Piper Cherokee piloted by Kris Pearce, a member of another Florida congregation, who had volunteered his time and plane to the missionary efforts. After a stopover in Fort Pierce, Fla., to pass through U.S. Customs—during which Anhalt, a ride mechanic at the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, mentioned his own desire to take flying lessons—they were aloft again. The airfield at Winter Haven, Fla., was nearly in sight when Pearce, 36, lost consciousness at the controls. Suddenly, the lives of Henry Anhalt and his family hinged on his own ability to land the single-engine six-seater safely.

Fortunately, Anhalt had paid close attention to Pearce during his three-hour flight to the Bahamas the previous week. And the family got another break when Dan McCullough, 32, a part-time flight instructor giving a lesson over nearby Lakeland, Fla., heard Anhalt's Mayday call and helped guide him to bring the plane down intact.

Sadly, it was too late for Pearce, a married real estate investor with three young children, who was pronounced dead at a hospital of a massive heart attack. "At lunch he had talked about having us come out and ride horses at his place," says Henry. "We thought we were going to be really good friends." Anhalt, his wife and pilot McCullough spoke recently with correspondent Lori Rozsa about their high-altitude ordeal.

Henry: We were flying for about 20 minutes, and Kris had just set the Global Positioning System that shows you the path to fly. He figured we were about 10 minutes from the airport and said, "I'm going to get the weather in Winter Haven." Then his head just dropped, and the plane started going down. So I grabbed the yoke in front of me and pulled the plane back up. At first I thought Kris was joking. Then I realized he wouldn't joke about that.

Becky: We had dipped a bit, and I turned—my back was to the cockpit—and saw Henry had control of the plane. I said, "Oh, he's letting you fly." After about three minutes, Henry was still at the controls. "What are you doing?" I said. He turned with a serious look and told me to find some smelling salts. I saw Kris slumped over. I lifted his head, squirted water onto a diaper wipe and started patting his cheeks to try to revive him. But it wasn't working. I said, "In the name of Jesus, wake up!" The plane was dipping and turning. I thought I was going to lose consciousness. I'm a person who doesn't even like roller coasters.

Henry: I kept my mind on flying the plane on a course for Winter Haven. I started calling, "Mayday!" over and over and kept praying for Kris to revive. We made it to the airport, but we still hadn't heard from anybody. I started circling. Becky was hollering that I was going too steep, so I made wider circles. Then I noticed that the fuel was low in the tank we were on. I tried switching to the full tank, but the engine would sputter, and I'd put it back to the nearly empty tank. Finally, somebody gets on the frequency and says, "Are you the Mayday?" "Yes, my pilot passed out," I said. "We're over the Winter Haven airport." Then another pilot came on and said, "We're close by. We'll be over to help."

Becky: Being a backseat driver, I'm trying to tell him what to do: Keep your eyes up, tip the plane back, you're leaning too much. I saw we were just a few miles from home. But we still had to land. Then those other pilots showed up, like angels in the sky.

McCullough: When I saw him, he looked like a little speck coming across Lake Alfred. As we got closer, the plane was a lot bigger, more powerful and complicated than I was expecting. "You got a red top?" I said. Then I realized that it was Kris Pearce's plane, and I actually had a little time in it. Once we got Henry switched to the full tank, he was very calm, very collected.

We flew down closer and got him lined up on a real good glide path to the runway. You can get anybody over the numbers on the ground, but it's that last five feet that's tricky. I asked him to fly around the airport a bit to get more used to the aircraft. After about five minutes, I said, "How much time have you got in an airplane?" He answered, "I hate to say it, but none."

Henry: I took it down to 500 feet, but I didn't feel comfortable yet, so we climbed up again—to around 800—and went around again.

McCullough: I told him it was perfectly fine to try again. He made his turn and came back around to line up with the runway, just like a pro. I told him to add a little power back in, and, real important, I needed him to keep the nose up or at least level to the ground. I got him down to 500 feet, and told him to throttle down a little, then pull the flaps up.

Becky: I had the kids put pillows on their laps—they were their favorite pillows from home, one in the shape of a baseball player, the other a Winnie-the-Pooh—and their arms over their heads, like on TV. Henry was staying calm, and that gave me confidence, but when I heard the other pilot warning him not to drop the nose, my stomach tightened. I looked at Jeremiah and saw the tears running down his face. "It's going to be all right," I said. "Duck your head and pray."

Henry: I just wanted to get Kris on the ground. That was my biggest concern. We were all right, and I knew Kris wasn't. I had the flaps—or whatever they're called—up, and I idled the speed down. After that, it happened real quick.

Becky: We bumped twice on the ground and veered a few feet into the grass. "Wow, this is a pretty smooth landing," I thought. Then it all hit me. When I got out, I started shaking so, and my legs about folded underneath me. We were all crying.

Henry: The emergency workers were at the door, and I was telling them to help Kris. I was hoping he was still breathing. Outside, we huddled together and said a quick prayer. I don't feel like a hero, I just feel blessed.

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