George Jonas

Your airplane, Mrs. Collins

by George Jonas
National Post

Easter may be a good time to remember that many of our triumphs are triggered by tragedies. To be resurrected, we may need to be crucified first. Great as a victory is, there are times when it may not make up for the agony that induced it.

One wonders if John Collins passed away earlier this week expecting that, by doing so, he had also condemned his wife to a nightmarish end. He could hardly have expected anything else.

On Monday, John and Helen Collins lifted off from Marco Island in Florida, flying their private plane as they often had done over the years, to be home for Easter in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, where the family owned a small manufacturing firm. A skilled and experienced airman, at 81 Mr. Collins wasn't too old to pilot a twin-engine Cessna, only too old to last the trip. He and his wife were about seven minutes from their destination field, Cherryland Airport in northeastern Wisconsin, when his heart gave out. He unbuckled his seatbelt and called to his wife. It's not reported whether he had time to say "your airplane" to her, before passing, first out, and then away.

"Your airplane" is among the customary phrases pilots use when passing command to one another on the flight deck, but Helen Collins, 80, wasn't a pilot. She did have hundreds, maybe thousands of flying hours in small aircraft, but only as a passenger. Though the environment aloft was familiar to her, it would never be "her" airplane. Helen Collins belonged to that unselfish, brave, loyal, and steadily diminishing breed: The non-flying flying spouse.

This group is entirely different from the flying-flying spouses we see in unions of two flying enthusiasts. When husband and wife both are pilots, flying together is safer for them than it would be for either to fly alone. In contrast, non-flying flying spouses double their exposure to risk: a non-flying wife (it's usually a wife) can be killed by her own heart attack in the air as well as that of her flying husband's.

Aviation isn't the only activity for "silent partner" spouses, of course. Rally drivers have spousal navigators. Some mates pose as targets for their knife-throwing significant others.

Helen Collins did take a "pinch-hitting" course about 30-40 years earlier, but such flying-seminars do little to extend the margin of safety for nonflyers. Unlike cars, airplanes aren't standardized. Even licensed pilots require type-ratings or endorsements for some models, or need to be checked out before getting behind the controls of others. To think that a long-ago weekend of circling a landing strip in a simple training aircraft with a friendly instructor would help someone two or three decades later to sort out a genuine emergency in a complex cockpit of totally different design, while flying over alien landscapes with a dead pilot slumped over unfamiliar controls, requires more optimism than most people can muster.

Yet 80-year-old Helen Collins managed to do just that, with the help of friends and relatives of equally maverick inclinations. It's worth noting that the government wasn't the first place where she turned for assistance. There would have been nothing wrong with raising Air Traffic Control or the Civil Air Patrol, but Mrs. Collins made a command decision. Instead of fumbling with the aircraft communication equipment or wasting time looking up frequencies, she first secured her husband's body with his seatbelt, then calmly used her cellphone to call 911, followed by dialling numbers she knew. Her son James, a pilot, proceeded to tell her how to begin her descent, while the manager of the destination airport, Keith Kasbohm, called a local pilot named Robert Vuksanovic.

Displaying fancy flying footwork a fighter squadron would have envied, Vuksanovic scrambled. He found her somehow, and flew on her wing, guiding her to Cherryland's 1,402-meter long and 23-meter wide runway, where Mrs. Collins bounced in the Cessna in a survivable crash landing that broke only the nose gear.

Son James told the wire services that his mother initially refused a wingman. "Don't you guys think I could do this on my own? Don't you have confidence in me?" the 80-year-old was quoted as saying. If she did, she may have known more about flying than she let on, or not have known enough to worry.

If Mrs. Collins had missed her first attempt, there would have been no second. The Cessna was out of fuel, with one engine already stopped and the other sputtering as she plunked it down. It meant she must have flown the approach to landing with asymmetric thrust, a dead engine on one wing, a daunting task even for a skilled pilot.

Which raises a question. At that stage, a prudent pilot would have had an hour's fuel reserves. Maybe Mr. Collins did, in a reserve tank, that Mrs. Collins didn't know how to access. Or perhaps Mr. Collins's heart attack seven minutes earlier was triggered by the realization he was running out of fuel. An error -- or was it a premonition, taking on just enough fuel to last him a lifetime?