Wisconsin Wife, 80, Forced to Land Plane: 'This Is a Hell of a Place to Be'

John and Helen Collins were flying home when he became unconscious mid-flight.

ByABC News
April 4, 2012, 5:07 PM

April 4, 2012 — -- Authorities today released radio communication between an 80-year-old Wisconsin woman forced to land a plane when her husband collapsed at the controls and the team trying to help her land safely.

The recording shows the increasing urgency of the situation as the plane's gas tank emptied and the engine sputtered.

"I think I'm going to run out of fuel on my right tank," Helen Collins told an assisting pilot from another plane and air traffic controllers coordinating her landing. "Somebody better get here in a hurry."

After her husband collapsed at the controls, Collins successfully landed the plane on Monday afternoon. She suffered minor injuries, but her husband John Collins, 81, did not survive.

Authorities from the Cherryland Airport spoke to Helen Collins over the radio and pilot Robert Vuksanovic was sent up in the Collins family's second small plane to give her mid-air flight instructions.

The situation lasted about 90 minutes and the Door County Sheriff's Office released 45 minutes of radio communications. Cathy Vuksanovic, a veteran flight instructor and Robert Vuksanovic's wife, communicated with Collins via radio from the ground.

When the communications began, Collins said her altitude was 2,500 feet. When Cathy Vuksanovic greeted her, Collins said, "Hi Cathy, this is a hell of a place to be. "

Collins had flown in the past, even flying solo, but she had never flown the two-engine Cessna and she had not piloted in about 30 years.

"Sounds like you're doing great," Vuksanovic told her.

A calm Collins reported that her air speed was about 160 miles per hour and asked if there were emergency services waiting on the ground.

After some confusion about whether she was going to land at an airport in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., or in Green Bay, Wis., an exasperated Collins said, "I don't know who I'm talking to half the time."

"I lost the airport," an increasingly concerned Collins said. "I think I'm going to run out of fuel on my right tank."

When the controllers told her a pilot was on his way up to help her, she said, "Somebody better get here in a hurry."

Cathy Vuksanovic tried to keep her calm, telling her, "You look good." But Collins responded worriedly, "I don't feel good."

Pilot Robert Vuksanovic flew to her right and did some flight exercises with her, circling above the airport, before coaching her through the landing.

"I've got to land pretty quickly. My gas gauge shows next to nothing," Collins said. "My right engine is out."

"Do not dive to the runway. Power down. Power off. Nose up," Robert Vuksanovic coached. "OK, you're down. Good job, Helen. Good job."

Authorities and paramedics were waiting on the ground to help the couple evacuate the plane.

"She bounced pretty hard," Collins' son, Richard Collins, told ABCNews.com. "When she bounced, the plane tilted forward and the landing gear broke."

Both Helen and John Collins were taken to the hospital, where John Collins was pronounced dead. His son believes he had a heart attack. His mother has a crushed vertebra, but was expected to go home today.

The couple had been flying from Florida to Wisconsin on Monday. John had not been feeling well on Thursday and the couple's son, James Collins, also a pilot, wanted to meet them in Rome, Ga., where they were stopping, to fly the rest of the way.

About six miles from Sturgeon Bay, Wis., something had gone wrong. Helen Collins had called an air control tower to say that "her husband, the pilot of the aircraft, was having some sort of medical emergency and was unresponsive in the aircraft," according to a Door County Sheriff's Office report.

When Richard Collins spoke to his mother, she described what had happened in the plane.

"She said that dad became unconscious and took off his seatbelt to breathe better," Richard Collins said.

His father lay down in the plane and his mother saw him "turning gray," he said.

"She felt his hand and she knew," Richard Collins said, as his voice cracked. "Everybody is so proud of her."