Posted by: Korry | April 5, 2012

The Pilot’s Dead. Could You Land?

Admit it. More than once while on a flight you’ve asked yourself whether you could land the plane if the pilot died. Heck, I’ve even asked that question. Granted, I’m pretty confident that since airplanes are all basically airplanes that if the pilot died I could safely–although not necessarily smoothly–land the plane.

Now let’s throw another twist into the mix: what if you were 80 and your 81-year-old husband was the pilot who suddenly and unexpectedly passed out? Could you remain emotionally composed enough to deal with the death of your husband AND somehow manage to safely land a pretty advanced, multi-engine plane under such stressful conditions?

As it turns out, that’s just what happened to Helen Collins over the skies of Wisconsin earlier this week. (See the full story here).

No, it wasn’t a picture perfect landing. Apparently Mrs. Collins bounced the landing, collapsing the nose gear and causing the plane to end up off the side of the runway. But Mrs. Collins walked away which means it was a good landing!

(Bad aviation joke time: What’s the difference between a good landing and a great landing? A good landing you can walk away from. A great landing you can use the airplane again!)

I find this story to be truly miraculous. Both my wife and my mom routinely fly in small planes with my dad and I. Often, they are the only passengers on the flights. I sure hope that, God forbid, something happened to either my dad or I mid-flight that they would be able to bring the plane in for a successful landing. Some flight schools even teach special “pinch hitter” courses for spouses or friends who just want to know how to “not die”…not necessarily learn how to be a full-fledged pilot.

This still raises the question of how she did it. While Mrs. Collins is reported to have had flight lessons, she was basically unfamiliar with the plane she was flying in at the time and she also hadn’t taken lessons in quite a number of years. News reports indicate, however, that she…ahem…got by with a little help from her friends.

Apparently another couple, Robert and Catherine Vuksonavic, took to the skies in another small plane and helped guide Mrs. Collins to the runway by, in essence, playing monkey see, monkey do. Mrs. Collins knew the basics of how to fly any type of airplane so she maneuvered the plane the best she could do to match what the Vuksonavics were doing. (Is it bad that all I can think about here is Maverick and Cougar in Top Gun’s opening scene? I can almost hear Mr. Vuksonavic yelling “YOU’RE TOO LOW, COLLINS!! MORE POWER!! MORE POWER!!)

Seriously though, my condolences and my congratulations go out to Mrs. Collins. I’m sorry for the loss of your husband and I’m so proud of you and the aviation community that came together to help you land your plane, particularly under such duress.

So aside from ending up as a phenomenal story, what’s the major lesson for the rest of us? I think it’s that the resources available to pilots in emergency situations are far greater than most of us can possibly realize.

In this situation, two pilots were sent skyward to aid a distressed airplane and its pilot. It’s easy to imagine that without the assistance of Robert and Catherine Vuksonavic, Mrs. Collins may not have been as successful as she was. The air traffic controllers undoubtedly cleared the airways for Mrs. Collins, too, so she likely had complete priority over anyone else in the sky.

It’s truly amazing how powerful the words “Flight XXX declaring an emergency” really are. I definitely hope I never have to experience first hand just how helpful the aviation community can be in a time of need, but I sure am glad to know the system is in place if I do.

What do you think?

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