MILWAUKEE (AP) — An 80-year-old woman with little flying experience knew her husband had died after he fell unconscious at the controls of a small plane, yet she 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 Helen Collins 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 in Marco Island, Fla. 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 for her 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 there 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.
Associated Press reporter Gretchen Ehlke contributed to this report.