On tape: 80-yr-old calm through cockpit emergency

(CBS News) Left alone in the cockpit of a small twin-engine plane after her pilot husband suffered a heart attack, an 80-year-old woman talked calmly with aviation officials as she guided the plane, and herself, to safety, phone recordings show.

It was a nightmarish scenario. Helen Collins' 81-year-old husband, John, was slumped over in the pilot seat as they flew in a two-engine Cessna. Collins, who had little flight experience and none in that type of plane, took the controls and called 911 for help.

The Door County Sheriff's Department released the 45-minute recording, which reveals a largely calm Collins as she talks with officials:

Collins: I'm in an airplane. We're about 15 minutes from Sturgeon Bay and my husband's having a problem. .

Dispatcher: "What kind of problems is he having?"

Helen Collins: "I'm not a pilot."

Dispatcher: "OK, what kind of problems is he having?"

Helen Collins: "I think he's passed out."

Cathy Vuksanovic, a veteran flight instructor, coached Helen as her husband, Robert, fired up his plane to guide Collins to the runway.

Collins (eight minutes in): "Hi Cathy, this is a hell of a place to be."

Cathy Vuksanovic: "Sounds like you're doing great."

Cathy Vuksanovic (roughly 10 minutes in): "You don't ever want the air speed to get below 100. you probably know that right?"

Helen Collins: "Yes I do. How do I control that? With the throttle?"

Robert Vuksanovic coached Collins through practice runs.

Robert Vuksanovic (around 24 minutes in): "Ok, pick it up, pitch up, pitch up, pitch up there Helen, pitch up there Helen. You're turning too sharp. Just fly south, fly south of the airport."

Collins: "I'm getting all these instructions and I'm not paying attention to where I'm flying."

Robert Vuksanovic: "I'll be joining up there with you in about two minutes."

Helen: "Hurry up."

Flying in formation, Vuksanovic was able to give Collins detailed instructions.

Robert Vuksanovic (about 32 minutes in): "Come up on the power just a little bit, about the same amount of movement as you did before."

Helen Collins: "You want me to put more flaps down?"

Robert Vuksanovic: "Once you put the powers up, once you push the throttles up a little bit, then put another notch of flaps down and you might have to trim back to hold the nose up."

After around 42 minutes, Collins warned she was running out of gas and her right engine was out. She came in for an emergency landing. The plane bounced on the runway, skidded across a grassy area and the front landing gear collapsed before the aircraft came to a stop, it's nose on the ground. Collins suffered a cracked vertebra but is expected to be out of the hospital in a few days.

Ironically, the Collins' volunteered for Angel Flights, an organization that provides free transportation to people in need of medical attention. John Collins would fly and Helen would often make meals for the family on the plane.

To watch Jim Axelrod's full report, watch the video in the player above.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.

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