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Wife flies plane after pilot-husband blacks out

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) - A woman with no flight experience flew a small plane over Colorado for 40 minutes after her husband blacked out at the controls, the Federal Aviation Administration said on Thursday.

The unidentified couple was en route from San Bernadino, California to Colorado Springs aboard a Cirrus SR 22 on May 17 when a Denver Center air traffic controller noticed the pilot was unintelligible and slurring his speech, the FAA said in a report of the incident.

The controller, Charles Rohrer, suspected the pilot was flying too high in the unpressurized aircraft and was suffering from a lack of oxygen, a condition known as hypoxia, according to the FAA.

Rohrer told the pilot to descend to a lower altitude to get more oxygen, but got no response. After a few minutes, the man's wife came on the radio and said she didn't know how to fly the plane.

Rohrer, a 22-year FAA veteran, put out a call to any pilots on the frequency who might be familiar with the aircraft.

"At that point, a Great Lakes Airlines crew comes on the frequency and provides the Cirrus pilot's wife with a calm and detailed explanation of how to descend using the autopilot," according to the FAA incident report.

The woman remained at the controls for about 40 minutes as the plane descended to a safer altitude and her husband revived and landed safely in Farmington, New Mexico as the Great lakes aircraft kept the Cirrus in sight.

Rohrer said in a statement released by the FAA that the Great Lakes crew "helped immensely" by instructing the woman on how to fly that particular aircraft.

"My main concern was getting the Cirrus down to a lower altitude where the pilot would be able to breathe in more oxygen," Rohrer said.

"I also wanted to keep the pilot's wife calm so she would be able to handle the aircraft until the pilot began to recover."

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Jerry Norton)

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