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LISTEN: Recordings Show How Wife Calmly Took Control To Land Plane

Down safely: Helen Collins successfully landed this small plane after the pilot, her husband, suffered a heart attack.
Down safely: Helen Collins successfully landed this small plane after the pilot, her husband, suffered a heart attack.
Paul Brown reporting

Recordings of the conversations that an 80-year-old Wisconsin woman had with a controller and another pilot after her husband collapsed at the controls of their small plane on Monday show she had a "take-charge attitude in a total emergency," NPR's Paul Brown said earlier this morning on our Newscast.

Indeed, Helen Collins sounds remarkably calm. Her 81-year-old husband John had suffered a heart attack when they were about 10 minutes away from landing at Cherryland Airport in Sturgeon Bay, 150 miles north of Milwaukee. He was later pronounced dead.

She needed to get the plane down safely.

Collins' son James tells The Associated Press that his mother had flown with her husband many times and that about 30 years ago she took take-off and landing lessons. You can hear in the recordings, which the Door County Sheriff's Office has posted here, that Collins is well aware of the perilous situation she's in.

At one point she says, "you'd better get me in there pretty soon, I don't know how long I'm going to have gas."

At another point, Collins tells a woman that "it's a hell of a place to be." And after being told that "you look good," Collins responds: "I don't feel good."

Helen Collins: "I Don't Feel Good"

With help from another pilot who flew up to talk her through the steps, Collins brought the Cessna twin-engine plane down. It was a hard landing — she suffered a cracked rib and injured vertebrae — but a safe one.

As the AP recounts, on the final approach pilot Robert Vuksanovic (who by then was positioned behind Collins), guided her down:

" '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.' "

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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