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80-year-old woman lands plane after husband passes out

Helen Collins, 80, had been flying with her husband for decades, but wasn't familiar with the plane's controls. NBC's Kevin Tibbles reports.

An 80-year-old woman with little experience flying planes was forced to make an emergency landing Monday when her husband, a certified pilot, slumped over the controls of his twin-engine Cessna in the skies of northeastern Wisconsin on Monday.

"He developed a medical emergency," Door County, Wis., Sheriff Terry Vogel said of John Collins, 81. "He died as a result."

His wife, Helen Collins, remained calm despite not knowing how to fly a Cessna, and called the sheriff's dispatch center for help.

"She was circling for an hour-and-a-half when the tanks were actually registering no fuel," Helen and John Collins' son, Richard, 55, told msnbc.com. "Usually you have 45 minutes. She had to be running on fumes, and I mean fumes."

The Collins, who live in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., were flying back from a weekend fishing trip to Florida. After fueling up in Georgia and calling Richard, who lives next door to them in Sturgeon Bay, they continued their flight.

Six miles south of Door County's Cherryland Airport, though, trouble struck: John had a heart attack mid-flight and fell unconscious, said Richard Collins. Richard and another brother, who knows how to fly, heard the news, and raced to airport's dispatch center just after 5 p.m.

With his father passed out at the controls and his mother weak from two open-heart surgeries of her own, Richard began to worry about the fate of both of his parents.

"She can hardly walk up steps," Richard said.

As authorities down on the ground debated whether it was best to try to direct Helen to Cherryland Airport or to the larger Green Bay Airport for what would undoubtedly be a rough landing, a local pilot flew up to be by Helen's side, figuring it would be easier to radio in instructions on how to land if he could gauge her speed in the air.

The situation got more dire when shortly after 6 p.m. Helen radioed in more bad news: The Cessna's right engine had lost power because it was out fuel.

"She said, 'Look, I gotta land, I'm outta fuel,'" Richard said.

An 80-year-old woman with no flying experience made an emergency landing after her husband fell unconscious behind the controls of his Cessna airplane.

Somehow, in what Richard describes as "a miracle," Helen managed to touch down safely at Cherryland.

"She didn't even know how to drop the landing gear," Richard said. "I can't even tell my mom how to run a computer!"

Amazingly, Helen didn't suffer any major injuries, Richard said. While the plane landed nose-first, and Helen got some bruises in the process, she is expected to be OK.

"She landed it. It was absolutely incredible. She had an elevated heartbeat, and they were trying to bring down that scuff mark on top of her head and the bruise on top of her forehead. She will probably have two black eyes, but she's up and alert," he said.

'We prayed over him, and we said our goodbyes'
The relief the family felt when they saw Helen was alive was matched by their grief when they realized their father didn't survive his heart attack.

"The EMTs extracted my dad. We prayed next to dad," Richard said. "She held his hand, and the priest said some prayers. We prayed over him, and we said our goodbyes. It was a really trying time."

John Collins had a passion for flying and owned multiple airplanes, Richard said, adding that he's proud of what his mom did.

"This twin [Cessna] is one of a few that won't go into a spin when you lose an engine. She brought it down and she did a wonderful job."

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