Helen and John Collins, a Wisconsin couple married for more than half a century, were flying home from their winter home in Florida on April 2. John, an 81-year-old who flew hundreds of hours each year with his private pilot’s license, was at the helm of a Cessna twin-engine plane when he suddenly fell unconscious a few miles from their hometown. The couple’s son, James Collins, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that his 80-year-old mother, the only passenger, immediately knew his father was dead.
Helen called 911, saying she believed her husband was stricken by a heart attack, and explaining that she had undergone minimal training for flying, some 20 years ago. After circling near the airport for about an hour, she began to hear the engine sputter and knew that she had to get the plane on the ground.
As authorities were alerted, her son—also a pilot—helped guide her via radio. Another local flyer, Robert Vuksanovic, jumped in a plane and came alongside her wing. Firefighters and ambulances were rushed to airport. The FAA was alerted.
(PHOTOS: Emergency Plane Landing in Warsaw)
Vuksanovic practiced step-by-step landings with Helen, completing each move—flaps down, gear down—with her in the air before finally guiding her to the runway at Cherryland Airport near their home of Sturgeon Bay. The landing was bumpy but successful. One engine was out of gas and one was nearly out; James Collins remarked to the AP that the “amazing thing is she landed that plane on one engine … I don’t know if there are a lot of trained pilots that could do that.”
Also amazing is how calmly Helen appears to have handled this situation, telling her son over the radio that she didn’t need another plane to guide her down, that even though she wasn’t a pilot, she was confident she could land the plane on her own.
John Collins was soon pronounced dead at a local hospital. Helen was treated the following day for a cracked rib and injury to her spine. Others meanwhile applauded her bravery. “For her to be able to do what she did, she’s a very strong woman,” the airport director told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “It would have been so easy to get flustered, but she was in a position where she had to do what she had to do—it was a life and death situation for her.”
James was grateful to still have his mother after the ordeal. “I already knew I lost my dad, I didn’t want to lose my mom,” he told the AP. “It could have been both of them at once.”