April 3, 2012 — -- A frail 80-year-old Wisconsin woman spent a harrowing 90 minutes learning how to handle a Cessna plane and then land it after her husband, who had been piloting the plane, collapsed while at the controls.
Helen Collins successfully landed the plane as it was running out of gas and an engine sputtering.
She is expected to be released from the hospital today with minor injuries after her bumpy landing Monday night at Sturgeon Bay. Despite the miracle landing, Helen Collins' husband John, 81, did not survive.
Her son, Richard Collins, recounted the ordeal today, punctuated with tears of grief for his father and chuckles of relief for his mom.
"I can't even tell her how to run a computer, let alone land a plane," Richard Collins, 55, told ABCNews.com. "It was a very trying time. I thought I was going to lose them both."
John and Helen Collins were 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.
"He wasn't right. You could tell something was wrong. He said he had a sore neck," Richard Collins told ABCNews.com today. But John Collins said he would fly himself.
"He had called me on the phone and asked me where I was," Richard Collins said. "I said I was at the airport waiting for him and he said he'd be there in 20 minutes. The next thing I knew, I saw the plane fly over the airport."
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.
She was going to have to land the plane.
Collins said his mother 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.
Richard Collins worked with the Cherryland Airport to send out the family's other plane with a pilot to shadow his mother and help her land. Another pilot was communicating with her from the ground.
"Robert [Vuksanovic, the pilot in the second plane] got in the air and was flying just off Helen's wing and was consulting her via radio," according to the report. "The two aircrafts did several fly-by type maneuvers as practice runs."
In a 911 call, a Sturgeon Bay FAA official told the operator about "a little bit of a situation up at the airport."
"There's a lady up in her airplane. Her husband was the pilot and she thinks he's having a heart attack right now in the air," the FAA official said. "She thinks he's not really able to fly the plane right now."
When the operator asked what kind of reinforcements to send, the official replied, "I think it would be a really good idea to send someone at least for the heart problem, and hopefully she doesn't crash the airplane."
"The sheriff said she was amazingly calm and alert and level-headed," Richard Collins said of his mother who he described as "about as frail as frail can be" after having undergone two open-heart surgeries in the past several years.
Collins recalled his mother saying to everyone instructing her, "Don't you guys have faith in me? I can do this." But moments before landing, she said, "I don't think I can do this."
After circling for an hour-and-a-half, she was able to land the plane.
Keith Kasbohm, director of Cherryland Airport near Sturgeon Bay, told the Associated Press, "She was on her last attempt to get lined up with the runway. She reported one engine was sputtering on that last attempt to land. We were all watching and knew she had to do it."
"She bounced pretty hard," Richard Collins said. "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 is expected to go home today.
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."
"She felt his hand and she knew," Richard Collins said as his voice cracked. "Everybody is so proud of her."
John Collins was the president and CEO of the family business, C&S Manufacturing, in Sturgeon Bay and had 50 employees. He began flying planes in the 1980s and frequently volunteered his services for Angel Flight, a group that helps transport patients in need to the hospitals they need to get to.
"My dad is the kind of guy that will help anybody. He's very generous and never turned anybody away," Richard Collins said. "He was like a father to anybody he knew. You couldn't find a better person. He's a better person than me. He's been a pillar in the community, my mom too."
Last week, the family spent time in Florida, relaxing by the ocean and eating out together.
Richard Collins remembered a conversation he heard his parents having in Florida last week while he was in his room going to bed.
"He says, 'Helen, I'm really lucky to have you.' And she said, 'No, I'm lucky to have you.' He said, 'No, I'm luckier to have you,'" Collins said through laughter and tears. "They were very tight."