After pilot dies, Wisconsin grandma has 'right stuff' to land plane

The 45-minute audio recording reveals a woman in control, a sense of urgency but no fear. Helen Collins didn't have a pilot's license, was low on fuel, and knew her husband had just died.

(AP Photo/Luke Collins)
John and Helen Collins. Her son, Luke, told The Associated Pressthat his 80-year-old mother had little flying experience, yet she remained calm as she landed the aircraft at a northeastern Wisconsin airport on Monday.

With her husband stricken in the pilot's seat of their small plane, an 80-year-old woman assumed the controls and spoke to aviation officials with remarkable calmness as they guided her to the ground, according to an audio recording released Wednesday.

Helen Collins can be heard saying repeatedly that she's low on fuel and needs to land quickly.

"You better get me in there pretty soon," Collins says matter-of-factly. "I don't know how long I'm going to have gas."

The 45-minute recording released by the Door County Sheriff's Department reveals a woman who sounds perfectly in control, even though she didn't have a pilot's license and knew her 81-year-old husband had just died. She occasionally conveys a sense of urgency, but always in a strong steady voice that doesn't hint at any fear.

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Collins made national news Monday after her successful landing, in which she suffered a cracked rib and back injury.

Her husband, John Collins, had an apparent heart attack less than 10 minutes before he planned to land at Cherryland Airport in Sturgeon Bay, about 150 miles north of Milwaukee, said James Collins, the couple's son.

On the flight recording Helen Collins doesn't say much about her husband, focusing instead on her location and speed. She tells airport officials she's doing fine but that her fuel is extremely low.

As she neared the airport, pilot Robert Vuksanovic scrambled a small plane to join her in the air and guide her to the ground. At one point, Vuksanovic's wife came on the radio to let her know Vuksanovic was on his way.

"It's a hell of a place to be," Collins said of her situation.

"I know, but it sounds like you're doing great," Vuksanovic's wife replies.

Collins had plenty of experience in a small plane, spending hundreds of hours by her husband's side in the air. Although she never got her license, she did get take-off and landing lessons some 30 years ago at her husband's urging in case of just such an emergency, James Collins said.

Vuksanovic can be heard encouraging Collins, telling her she's doing fine and guiding her to adjust her speed and pitch. At one point he confirms that her landing gear is down and says, "Very good. Good, good."

"I don't feel good," Collins replies.

"No, you're doing good," he says.

Vuksanovic stayed by her side as they circled the airport and slowly descended. At one point he asks someone to make sure a road was closed.

"Don't you have any faith in me?" Collins asks.

"I do. I don't trust the drivers on the road," he says.

He positioned his plane behind her Cessna twin-engine plane and they prepared for their final approach. His commands grew more urgent: "Turn left. Turn left. Left turn, Helen, turn left. Bring the nose up. That's it, that's it."

She told him her right engine was out. He told her she was doing fine, then guided her lower.

"Nose down. Nose down. Turn right a little bit. Turn right. Nose down, nose down. Come on, get down. Get down," he said. Then, rapid-fire, almost shouting: "Bring the power back. Power back. Power back. Reduce the power, over. Reduce the power. Nose down, over. Helen, do you read me?"

After a tense second of silence she replies calmly, "I read you."

Her plane bounced hard off the runway, then landed and skidded down the runway about 1,000 feet.

"Great job, Helen, great job," someone says over the radio, with muffled cheers in the background. "Outstanding, Helen."

James Collins said he was grateful he didn't lose both parents that day. He described his mother's actions as unbelievable.

"Everybody is proud of her," he said. "I think she is a local hero for sure."



Audio recording: (click on Press Releases)


Associated Press writer Carrie Antlfinger contributed to this report.

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