Twin-engine craft low on fuel; 80-year-old lacked experience
MILWAUKEE – 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 that he 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 she 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,” James Collins 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.
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 the plane skidded down the runway about 1,000 feet, but Helen Collins worked the rudders to keep the plane straight.
Torry Lautenbach, whose property is next to the airport, watched her land and estimated she circled the airport 10 times.
“She did a really good job. It was amazing,” Lautenbach said. “It took one bad hop and then it came back down and skidded.”
Collins said his mother was hospitalized Tuesday with an injury to her vertebrae and a cracked rib but was doing well.