Woman saves herself, lands plane: How it happened

80-year-old woman takes control of plane mid-... 02:46

(CBS News) - A woman, 80, took over the controls mid-flight and landed a small plane in northeastern Wisc., when her husband, the pilot was stricken.

Helen and John Collins were married for 58 years. When visiting family, they often didn't drive - they flew in a twin engine Cessna. John was an experienced pilot, averaging 250 flight hours each summer.

But, late Monday afternoon, while flying to see one of their sons, something went terribly wrong.

Pilot dies at controls; Wife, 80, lands plane

Helen realized John had lost consciousness. With little flight experience of her own and none with this particular plane, the 80-year-old woman took over the controls.

Captain Chesley Sullenberger knows something about dangerous flights and emergency landings. "She obviously had paid attention when her husband was flying the airplane. Then she was able to master her fear."

Helen called 911 and police dispatchers alerted the FAA.

"They said a lady is up in her airplane," dispatcher said. "Her husband was the pilot and she thinks he's having a heart attack. She thinks she's not able to fly the plane right now."

Helen was circling at 2,400 hundred feet over northeastern Wisconsin when Robert Vuksanovic, a licensed pilot from Sturgeon Bay flew to her rescue.

Vuksanovic, "As I was coaching her through the configuration change ... putting the flaps down, putting the gear down and adjusting the power, I was doing the same in my aircraft."

In his own plane, Vuksanovic managed to stay alongside Helen's Cessna - giving her guidance and support over the radio. He coached her through several practice runs before she headed for an emergency landing.

After a bumpy touchdown, Helen's plane skidded across a grassy area and glided onto the runway and came to a stop with its nose on the ground.

John Collins never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

But, Helen survived with only minor injuries. Her son called the remarkable feat, "just unbelievable."