An elderly couple was returning to Wisconsin from Florida in a small twin-
engine airplane when the husband, the only pilot aboard, had a heart
Nightmares are made of such moments.
Helen Collins, 80 years old, watched the fuel gauge of her small twin-engine airplane drop slowly for more than an hour as it circled a rural Wisconsin runway at an altitude of about 2,000 feet, or 600 meters. Her husband, the only pilot in the aircraft, was unconscious at the controls, having apparently suffered a heart attack. She knew that if she was going to survive, she had no choice but to learn how to fly -- and fast.
The couple was returning home to Sturgeon Bay, Wisc., from Florida on Monday, having stopped briefly in Georgia to refuel before embarking on the final three-hour stretch of their journey. They flew together often, several times a month, storing their planes at the Door County Cherryland Airport, about an hour northeast of Green Bay.
Ms. Collins was still about seven minutes away from the airport when she called for help, dialing 911 dispatchers from her cellphone to say that her husband, John Collins, 81, was unresponsive, and that there was no one to land the plane.
Emergency vehicles quickly arrived at the tarmac and waited. Robert Vuksanovic, a local certified flight instructor, jumped in another plane and flew up beside her, coaching from cockpit to cockpit by radio, trying to cram at least a month's worth of pilot training lessons into mere minutes.
"She had her wits," said Keith Kasbohm, the Cherryland Airport director, who was among the team helping Ms. Collins from the ground. "She's an 80-year-old woman, but she's I guess what I would call a young 80-year-old woman. She's very spry, and to be in that situation and to be able to keep her cool the way she did is just amazing."
She approached the runway three times. The first was just for practice. The second time, she came in too high, too fast, and had to abort the landing.
When she rounded for the third attempt, however, she radioed down to say she could hear her right engine begin to sputter. "She knew at that point she didn't have enough fuel to miss and go around and try it again," Mr. Kasbohm said.
The wheels finally hit the tarmac hard, bouncing the plane into the air and collapsing the nosewheel before skidding to a halt. Mr. Collins was rushed to a local emergency room, where he was pronounced dead. Ms. Collins, who could not be reached for an interview, walked away with minor injuries to her vertebrae and a cracked rib.
"It was just like the airplane was on autopilot," said Mr. Vuksanovic, the flight instructor who flew beside her, guiding even as she touched down. "I've seen a lot, but I know I haven't seen it all, because this was new to me: to see somebody with basically no multiengine experience to successfully, safely do what she did."
James Collins, 54, also a pilot, stood on the ground listening to his mother as she prepared to land the plane. By then, he said Ms. Collins knew that her husband had already passed away. All he could focus on was the fear of losing both his parents on the same day. "You're watching all this, and you don't know if your mom can actually land the plane," he said. "But you're praying she can. And she did it."
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