Helen’s calm voice over the radio was a far cry from the internal cocktail of emotions she was experiencing. As she turned and caught sight of John once more, her heart broke all over again.
She remembered how alone she was at that moment; a moment that she knew might be her last if she wasn’t able to hold her nerve.
John and Helen Collins had left Florida a few hours ago. Their last day there had capped off a lovely few days of sun, gentle waves, good food, and good friends.
The couple was able to enjoy the kind of social life most people could only dream of. They could visit a new city every week if they wanted to. But how was that even possible?
John was a veteran pilot. Although retired, the couple had their own plane; a twin-engine Cessna 414. John’s career as a pilot had been a long and accomplished one.
John had even done many flights for “Angel Flight”, a non-profit program that provided free medical flights for patients in need. After hundreds of successful flights in his career, John never imagined that he would one day be the one that needed an emergency flight.
Since John’s retirement, the couple had lived a good life. Although now both in their 80s, the pair regularly went on vacations with their friends. When these took place in other cities, the couple usually flew themselves there.
Although they had enjoyed their Florida trip very much, the couple was anxious to get home as there was someone special meeting them at the airport.
John and Helen were natives of Wisconsin and due to land at the Cherryland Airport in Sturgeon Bay. Once there, their son, Richard Collins would be meeting them.
After take-off, the flight initially went as smoothly as could be expected. However, once the plane was over a region between Green Bay and Sturgeon Bay, everything began going horribly wrong.
John had been flying as well as ever and the flight had been smooth. He had checked in over the radio and the couple was settling in for the last hour or so of flying time.
Without warning, John clutched his chest. After yelling out a few times, he suddenly slumped over the steering column and the plane began to pitch forward drastically.
As a pilot’s wife for so many years, Helen knew panicking wouldn’t help the situation. Calming herself, she eased the plane back to semi-level flight. The plane was now at least stable so Helen could check on John.
She tried her best to revive him but soon had to face reality and force herself to accept the truth. With tears in her eyes, she steadied her voice and called out a mayday over the radio.
The air traffic controller confirmed Helen’s situation in disbelief. It was a bleak situation. Still pretty far out from the nearest airport, Helen would have to somehow fly the plane to safety.
It wasn’t looking good but Helen knew that if anyone was capable of doing this, it was her. She grabbed the controls and prepared to fly the plane on her own the rest of the way.
Helen was by no means a qualified pilot. Thankfully, Collin had seen fit many years ago to make her do some basic flight training in case there was ever such an emergency to contend with.
Helen knew the basics but was still a nervous wreck and badly out of practice since the days of her lessons. The instruments suddenly seemed so confusing and the plane was beginning to shake and vibrate a lot.
Luckily for Helen, an air traffic controller was guiding her. Additionally, another pilot, Robert Vuksanovic, took the air to help guide her as she kept her nerve and managed to level out.
Amazingly, she was able to regulate altitude, pitch, and airspeed, and control the plane’s heading well enough to guide it closer to the airport. She was doing well until another nightmare unfolded.
Nearing Sturgeon Bay, the plane began to sputter and the instruments indicated low fuel and that the left engine was dead. Luckily, the air traffic controller calmly talked Helen through redirecting power with the right engine and this kept the plane stable.
Remarkably, Helen had managed to fly all the way to the airport and could see the runway. However, she now faced her greatest test; actually landing the plane safely.
Helen’s calm voice over the radio was not indicative of how she felt inside. Although a storm of nerves, she kept her cool. As the plane rushed toward the tarmac, various speed and altitude warnings went off.
Helen touched down roughly. The plane bounced a few times and ran off-center, before pitching forward but ultimately coming to a stop safely.
Helen had pulled off an astonishing feat. At 80-years-old, with minimal training, and all by herself, she managed to successfully fly and land a twin-engine aircraft. After touching down, things were a blur.
Helen was shaken up but not badly injured and received treatment. Things were bitter-sweet for her. Her remarkable achievement aside, it was confirmed that John had sadly suffered a fatal cardiac arrest.
Richard Collins could not believe what had happened. He was on the ground when the news reached him that his father was unconscious and his mom was flying the plane. “I thought I was going to lose them both,” he later told news outlets.
It was a sad reunion for him. While distraught over his father, Richard was extremely grateful that he was able to hug his mother again.
Over the next few years, Helen Collin’s would be widely acclaimed by news outlets, the public, and pilots from all over the world. She took solace knowing that John would have been so proud of her achievement.
She looked back and could never quite explain how she managed to pull it all off. She always maintained that since John had safely flown them both so many times, it felt like his spirit had guided her safely to the ground that day too.