Part-time Marco resident lands plane after pilot husband dies

This photo provided April 3, 2012, by the Door County Sheriffs Office shows Cessna twin-engine plane that an elderly woman landed with an almost empty fuel tank after her husband fell unconscious at the controls Monday in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. Helen Collins, 80, had some flight training years ago but was not familiar with the controls of the plane, said Keith Kasbohm, director of Cherryland Airport where she landed. Collins' 81-year-old husband, John, was later pronounced dead at a hospital. (AP Photo/Door County Sheriffs Office)

This photo provided April 3, 2012, by the Door County Sheriffs Office shows Cessna twin-engine plane that an elderly woman landed with an almost empty fuel tank after her husband fell unconscious at the controls Monday in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. Helen Collins, 80, had some flight training years ago but was not familiar with the controls of the plane, said Keith Kasbohm, director of Cherryland Airport where she landed. Collins' 81-year-old husband, John, was later pronounced dead at a hospital. (AP Photo/Door County Sheriffs Office)

This undated photo provided Tuesday, April 3, 2012, by Luke Collins shows his parents, Helen and John Collins. Luke told The Associated Press Tuesday that his 80-year-old mother had little flying experience and knew her husband had died after he fell unconscious at the controls of their small plane, yet she remained calm as she landed the aircraft at a northeastern Wisconsin airport on Monday. (AP Photo/Luke Collins)

This undated photo provided Tuesday, April 3, 2012, by Luke Collins shows his parents, Helen and John Collins. Luke told The Associated Press Tuesday that his 80-year-old mother had little flying experience and knew her husband had died after he fell unconscious at the controls of their small plane, yet she remained calm as she landed the aircraft at a northeastern Wisconsin airport on Monday. (AP Photo/Luke Collins)

MILWAUKEE — An 80-year-old part-time Marco Island resident with little flying experience knew her husband had died after he fell unconscious at the controls of a small plane.

Yet Helen Collins remained calm as she landed the aircraft at a northeastern Wisconsin airport, her son said Tuesday.

In a phone interview with The Associated Press, James Collins said he’s also a pilot and had helped his mother via radio as the Cessna twin-engine plane began running out of gas Monday evening. Another pilot also took to the skies to guide her to the ground at Cherryland Airport, near Sturgeon Bay — about 150 miles north of Milwaukee.

He said his mother took lessons to take off and land about 30 years ago at her husband’s urging, in case something happened to him, but never got her license. She has flown hundreds of hours by his side.

"At one point she didn’t even want the wingman to go up," he said. "She said, `Don’t you guys think I could do this on my own? Don’t you have confidence in me?’ She was calmer than everybody on the ground. She had it totally under control."

They were coming back from their second home on Marco Island for Easter, Collins said. His 81-year-old father, John Collins, had a heart attack about seven minutes from landing at Cherryland Airport and had called her to the cockpit before he became unconscious, Collins said. She had called 911 and that’s when everyone came together to help her down.

The pilot who helped was Robert Vuksanovic, who lived just a mile from the airport, said Keith Kasbohm, director of Cherryland Airport. After getting the call from Kasbohm, Vuksanovic jumped in another plane owned by the Collins and flew up to meet the Cessna while instructing the novice on the radio.

"He felt it would be easier," Kasbohm said. "With him alongside of her he could control her speed and altitude" before she attempted a landing.

Collins said his mother knew her husband had died after she unsuccessfully tried to get him back into his seatbelt, which he unbuckled before he collapsed.

He said one engine had completely run out of gas and the other had to be close to running out because it was sputtering. The nose-wheel collapsed upon landing and she skidded down the runway about 1,000 feet, but she worked the rudders to keep the plane straight.

"The amazing thing is she landed that plane on one engine," Collins said. "I don’t know if are a lot of trained pilots that could do that."

At a news conference Tuesday, Vuksanovic said he also experienced Helen Collins’ confidence, WLUK-TV reported.

"She wanted to know if I was confident in her confidence," he said. "I said if you’re confident then I’m confident, I think we can do this."

Collins said his mother was hospitalized on Tuesday with an injury to her vertebrae and a cracked rib but was doing well.

He said he stayed calm and focused because he had to help her.

"I already knew I lost my dad, I didn’t want to lose my mom," he said. "It could have been both of them at once."

Collins described his mother’s actions as unbelievable, answering their questions about air speed or the flaps. "You think she had done it all her life."

"Everybody is proud of her," he said. "I think she is a local hero for sure."

Torry Lautenbach, whose property is next to the airport, watched her land and estimated she circled the airport about 10 times.

"She did a really good job (landing the plane). It was amazing," Lautenbach said. "It took one bad hop and then it came back down and skidded."

Elizabeth Isham Cory, a spokeswoman with the Federal Aviation Administration, said John Collins had a current private pilot’s license but couldn’t immediately provide any details on how often he needed to get a medical exam. She said pilots can fly until they stop passing medical exams.

The Collins family, of Sturgeon Bay, own a small manufacturing company in Door County, authorities said. John Collins founded C & S Manufacturing in 1962, according to the company’s website.

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Comments » 6

gladesgator writes:

It's nice to see an article like this amist all the trash and nonsense that is often published. On thing that is hard to fathom is the conflicting emotions of this situation.

How does the shock and grief of losing a spouse interface with the control and lucidity needed to face a situaation like this?

God bless.

loscabos writes:

What in the world are 80 year olds doing flying around and piloting airplanes? Don't you think cars are bad enough?

gladesgator writes:

in response to loscabos:

What in the world are 80 year olds doing flying around and piloting airplanes? Don't you think cars are bad enough?

He had a heart attack - that can happen to a 30 year old or an 80 year old. Your comment is so disrespectful and inappropriate for the situation. I hope you rememember your attituded and what you said if you every reach 80.

RayPray writes:

in response to gladesgator:

He had a heart attack - that can happen to a 30 year old or an 80 year old. Your comment is so disrespectful and inappropriate for the situation. I hope you rememember your attituded and what you said if you every reach 80.

"He had a heart attack - that can happen to a 30 year old or an 80 year old."

>>> Please....

>>> What is this old fool pretend hot-dogger's plane had crashed into a school -- or, worse yet, my lanai?

2themoon writes:

thank GOD we dont have these young punks flying planes while they text and do all this other crap they do when they drive.

gladesgator writes:

in response to RayPray:

"He had a heart attack - that can happen to a 30 year old or an 80 year old."

>>> Please....

>>> What is this old fool pretend hot-dogger's plane had crashed into a school -- or, worse yet, my lanai?

Wow, your Lanai would be a great place to crash especially if you were there with your laptop typing yet another s----- post!!

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