Audio: The night Prince’s plane made an emergency landing

The conversations between the pilot of Prince’s private jet and air traffic controllers don’t reveal much about why the jet had to make an emergency landing in Moline, Ill., just a few days before Prince died.

MPR News’ Mark Zdechlik obtained the tapes from the FAA air traffic control radar facility in Aurora, Ill., and they confirm only that the pilots declared an emergency because of an unresponsive passenger, believed now to be Prince.

But they do show the difficulty of getting a jet on the ground safely in a hurry, and the skill of pilots and controllers to accomplish the task.

The jet was traveling at 42,000 feet over Peoria at exactly 1 a.m., last Friday morning when the pilot declared an emergency. That’s a higher altitude than a commercial airliner typically flies at. It needed to lose a lot of altitude in a hurry. There was also the question of where to land.

Moline was 65 miles away. It would take some work to get the plane down quickly. At first the pilot descended at the rate of about 2,000 feet per minute, steeper than a typical passenger plane, but 12 minutes later, steepened the descent rate to almost a mile a minute. Moline’s airport was coming up in a hurry, but the jet was still too high for a stabilized approach.

A corporate pilot acquaintance, when I asked how steeply he’d feel comfortable descending his jet, suggested 5,000 feet per minute — the rate at which Prince’s plane was approaching Moline — was about as steep as he’d suggest.

The original plan was to land the plane to the east, into the wind. But it appears the plane had still not lost enough altitude to do so. It passed Moline, lost more altitude, then turned back to the airport, opposite the direction of the intended runway, then turned back toward the runway to land, a standard “pattern” for airports with no control towers. The Moline tower closes at 10 p.m.

To have attempted any other method would’ve constituted what’s known as an “unstabilized approach.”

“Unstabilized approaches are bad,” a corporate pilot who did not want to be identified said.

With no control tower, the pilot constantly reported his position on a separate frequency reserved for aircraft at the airport, in case any other planes were in the area. But there was no other traffic to worry about. The pilot landed in the opposite direction from the original plan. Other than the emergency itself, this is the only real indication of the pilot’s intent to get the plane down as quickly as possible. He landed with a tailwind.

It was 1:18 a.m. Eighteen minutes after the emergency was declared, the pilot had his plane on the ground, and was looking for help.

  • Amazing bit of flying.

    Also, most controllers are consummate professionals…

    • I really love talking to controllers. I can’t think of a more unflappable, competent group of people in the American workplace. So, of course, the politicians want to privatize ATC.

      • “Cool story, Bro” time:

        My brother is a controller (at MSP), I know quite a few controllers and actually play hockey in the annual International ATC tourney with a TON of controllers.

        Prior to MSP he was based on the east coast (JFK and Philly) where I was afforded an informal tour of the facilities. While he was pointing out the various radar scopes and other bits of technology, he decided to show me how it’s “done” and took over a couple inbound flights from an on duty controller.

        He slipped on the headphone and mic and instantly changed into the “ATC voice”, it was as if an actual switch flipped in his brain that took him from “casual tour guide” to “ATC pro.”

        i just stood there, stunned, as he slipped back into “tour guide” mode after landing the two commercial jets…

        /Took the ATC test and scored higher than he did
        //Didn’t get called and now I’m too old
        ///He told me I’d make a crappy controller anyway because I tend to “think” too much

  • crystals

    Can commercial passenger jets fly like this if they wanted to (passenger comfort notwithstanding), or does the size of the plane impact how quickly/steeply it can ascend or descend?

    I flew in a private corporate jet a while back, an 8 or 9 seater flown by ex-military pilots. It felt like I was in a rocket ship.

    • Paul

      Not all aircraft are created equally, however, they absolutely have more maneuverability than what you experience as a passenger.

      A400M showing off, this aircraft compares to the C130 you might spot overhead the cities in the summer months

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBPs1u94gbY

  • jon

    Not able to listen to the audio at work, but who contacts emergency services in the event of a landing like this? Do they monitor the airport chatter, or is there an emergency channel that they monitor like CBs?
    Or does the pilot just pop out his cell phone ones they are on the ground and call 911?