While up in the air with her husband slumped over the plane's controls, 80-year-old Helen Collins, managed to land the safely. NBC's Kevin Tibbles reports.
An audio recording released by Wisconsin aviation officials reveals the cool-headedness of an 80-year-old woman who took the controls of the airplane her husband had been flying until he suddenly lost consciousness.
Helen Collins was sitting in the passenger's seat of a Cessna when her husband, 81-year-old pilot John Collins, suffered a fatal heart attack.
Although Helen had taken some flying lessons decades ago, she never got her pilot license and was unfamiliar with how to fly the Cessna. The couple was six miles south of their destination, Cherryland Airport, near their hometown of Sturgeon Bay, Wis., when John slumped over.
Helen had only one choice: take the controls and radio in for a crash course in landing planes.
"I gotta land pretty quick. My back gauge shows nothing," the retired secretary says during the first of a couple of attempts to reach the runway.
On the 45-minute audio released by Door County sheriff's office (covering roughly 90 minutes of flight), Helen says little about her husband, instead answering questions about her location and speed, and learning as much as she can about the plane over the course of the recording. Her voice barely reveals any emotion, only conveying urgency about landing.
To help her out, another pilot, Robert Vuksanovic, scrambled in a small plane. His wife, also a pilot, joined other aviation officials from the dispatch center.
"OK, Helen? We're going to launch another aircraft. It will come up and it will fly right next to you and it will give you instructions and it will fly right next to you and fly with you to the airport," officials from the dispatch center tell her.
Meanwhile, down on the ground, firefighters and EMTs convened in Cherryland Airport, not knowing what condition she or her husband would be in when they arrived, Door County officials said.
The audio recording is full of static, beeping, and other noises, but the only thing that seems to break Collins' concentration is a telephone call. "My cell phone is ringing right now. Is that you guys?"
Back at the dispatch center, Vuksanovic's wife tells Helen: "Just disregard it. We're all here on the radio."
Once Vuksanovic nears Helen in the air, he reaches her on the radio and tells her she's doing well as he prepares her for the final approach.
"OK, very good," he says. "Looking good, Helen, just fly down the runway."
Listen to full 45-minute audio on wtmj.com
"I don't think I can circle again," she says. "I'm coming in too fast."
They try several times to land, but can't position the Cessna quite right. "Turn left. Turn left. Left turn, Helen, turn left. Bring the nose up. That's it, that's it," he says.
Then, she tells him her right engine is out. Her fuel has finally run out.
"Nose down. Nose down. Turn right a little bit. Turn right. Nose down, nose down. Come on, get down. Get down," he said. "Bring the power back. Power back. Power back. Reduce the power, over. Reduce the power. Nose down, over. Helen, do you read me?"
A second goes by and she responds in a calm voice, "I read you."
Original story: 80-year-old woman lands plane after husband passes out
The Cessna bounced off the runway and landed about 1,000 feet down the runway, The Associated Press reported.
"Great job, Helen, great job," someone says over the radio. "Outstanding, Helen."
Her son Richard Collins, who lives next door to his mom, told msnbc.com.com it's a "miracle."
"I can't even believe it. I can't even tell my mom how to run a computer!" the 55-year-old said.
Helen is recovering from a cracked rib and injuries to her spine, but is doing well, a family member said, according to The Associated Press.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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