Woman, 80, lands plane after husband collapses: ‘Gas gauge shows nothing’
Helen Collins knew her 81-year-old husband slumped next to her in the small Cessna was dead.
She also knew the plane was fast running out of fuel, and even someone who knew how to fly would be in trouble. She last flew 30 years ago, a few take-offs and landings at her husband’s urging just in case she ever had to take the controls.
“Hell of a place to be,” she radioed one of two pilots talking her through what would be a hard landing near Sturgeon Bay in Door County — but one she would walk away from with just a cracked rib.
Collins, 80 and her husband John had been flying back from their second home in Marco Island, Fla. Monday evening when John Collins suffered a heart attack as they neared Cherryland Airport.
Tapes of the radio transmissions show Collins keeping her cool throughout the ordeal, her voice calm as she told pilot Robert Vuksanovic, “I’ve got to land pretty quick, my gas gauge shows nothing.”
“Okay, we’re going to get it on the next time around,” replied Vuksanovic, flying alongside her. “You’ve got to be lined up pretty much with the runway though.”
Collins even managed some humor.
As they made their final approach, Vuksanovic radioed the controller on the ground, “Go ahead and have them close the road. Over.”
“What do you mean by close the road?” Collins asked.
“I’m talking to the people on the ground, Helen.”
“Don’t you have faith in me?” Collins asked.
“I do, I don’t trust the drivers on the road,” Vuksanovic shot back.
By the time Collins touched down, one engine had run out of gas and the other was close to empty and sputtering. The nose-wheel collapsed and the plane skidded down the runway about 1,000 feet as Collins worked the rudders to keep the plane straight.
“The amazing thing is she landed that plane on one engine,” said her son, James Collins. “I don’t know if there are a lot of trained pilots that could do that.”
James Collins said his father was able to call from the cockpit before becoming unconscious. Then Helen Collins called 911, sending everyone at the small airport scrambling.
Keith Kasbohm, director of Cherryland Airport, called Vuksanovic who lived just a mile from the airport. Vuksanovic jumped in another plane owned by the Collins and flew up to meet the Cessna while giving instructions on the radio.
“He felt it would be easier,” Kasbohm said. “With him alongside of her, he could control her speed and altitude.”
During their radio conversations, Vuksanovic said Helen Collins “wanted to know if I was confident in her confidence. I said if you’re confident then I’m confident, I think we can do this.”
James Collins said his mother was hospitalized with an injury to her vertebrae and a cracked rib but was doing well.
“Everybody is proud of her,” he said. “I think she is a local hero for sure.”