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Pilot Describes Amazing Talk-Down Landing

 

Rod Hightower, Paul Poberezny, and Robert Vuksanovic
Robert Vuksanovic, right, was congratulated by EAA President/CEO Rod Hightower and Founder Paul Poberezny for successfully talking down a non-pilot in a twin-engine aircraft after her husband became incapacitated in the left seat. (Photo by Brian Huth/EAA)

April 5, 2012 - On Monday afternoon Robert Vuksanovic was out mowing the lawn at his Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, home when suddenly a low-flying twin-engine airplane streaked over his property. He noticed it but thought nothing particularly unusual about it. But the former Midwest Airlines pilot and CFII soon learned it was an airplane whose pilot in command had become incapacitated and was being flown by the passenger, who had very limited flying experience.

He and his wife, Catherine, an FAA Part 135 ride inspector, were the key ingredients in guiding Helen Collins, 80, safely to the ground. In fact, as Rob described it to EAA Thursday morning, the entire episode was a series of extremely fortuitous occurrences that prevented a tragic situation from becoming a potential catastrophe.

"The stars were really aligned for us," he said during a planned visit to EAA headquarters Thursday. Catherine had a scheduled checkride at Fox Valley Technical College's aviation facilities located on Wittman Regional Airport and Rob was planning to visit the AirVenture Museum.

Rob's extensive (28,000 hours) of flight experience and the fact that he had been in other successful talk-down situations before, coupled with Catherine's own flying background (nearly 20,000 flight hours) and an extensive background in psychology, played crucial roles in guiding Helen to the ground for a safe landing. Even the fact that the Cessna 414A's nose gear collapsed after Helen's hard initial touchdown prevented the aircraft from rolling further off the runway into a ditch and other obstructions that could have resulted in a much more tragic ending.

As Rob told it, here is how events unfolded:

About 10 minutes after seeing the plane from his yard, Rob was in the house when the phone rang. It was Keith Kasbohm, manager of the Sturgeon Bay Cherryland Airport (KSUE), who told him the situation. They needed him and Catherine to come to the airport right away, so off they went.

They arrived in short order and Catherine immediately got on the radio with Helen to put her at ease so she could land the plane. Fully aware that the clock was ticking - the airplane had been flying since topping off at Rome, Georgia, nearly four hours earlier - they quickly determined that the only option was for Rob to join up in formation with Helen and talk her back down. He went to his hangar but his Beech Bonanza - a type that could keep up with the 414 - was locked and in the hectic scramble to get to the airport he forgot to grab his keys.

The Collins children who were on the scene made available their father's own Bonanza, which was already fueled and ready to go. Soon Rob was airborne and reached Helen's left wing "seven minutes after engine startup," he said.

After confirming she had at best about a quarter tank of fuel remaining, Rob proceeded to have her fasten her shoulder harness, then instructed her to make sure the landing gear was engaged in a down position. He then had her trim the aircraft, which was more difficult than one would think because the only trim control on the 414 is on the left side, forcing Helen to reach over her husband, who was non-responsive and slumped over the controls.

Between 15 and 30 years ago - Rob wasn't certain - Helen had taken flight lessons at the urging of her husband if such a situation ever occurred. She even soloed at one point in a single-engine plane, plus she had flown at her husband's side for many, many years. That limited knowledge and exposure to flight was crucial and was about to be put to the test.

They circled the airport four times, the first two with Rob having Helen perform simple turn maneuvers while he observed the attitude of the aircraft and how well she could fly it. She was able to maintain straight and level, and seemed calm despite her husband's condition and her limited piloting skills.

By the third circuit around KSUE, Rob - cognizant of the fuel situation - decided it was time to attempt the landing. Speed, altitude, alignment. He instructed her to engage the approach flaps, adjust airspeed to 125, and line up on the runway. However, when Helen got off alignment and was coming in too hot, he knew she needed to go around or risk a major accident.

"Okay!" Helen said, and they were on their fourth lap around KSUE. Instead of being on her left wing, Rob went behind to better assess Helen's alignment. All of the sudden, she started heading out over the nearby bay and Rob called out to her to turn back. Helen then reported she thought she was losing the right engine. But, as Rob explained, "She rolled that puppy like an aerobatic aircraft," the engine came back, and she was back in line again.

"Turn right, keep turning right, bring the nose up," Rob can be heard saying as she was on final. "You're looking good."

"I looked over, she pitched down as instructed, and right on speed," he said. "She came in just perfectly." When she touched down, she bounced back up about 50 to 75 feet. Instructed to pull the power off and keep the nose down, she came back down and applied the toe brakes. When the nose gear collapsed, Rob said it was actually a good thing because it slowed her down much faster and brought the aircraft to a stop before obstructions off the end of the runway. Emergency personnel vehicles were immediately at the scene and Helen got out of the aircraft.

"Good job, Helen, good job," is heard from the ground on the audio recording of the incident. Rob landed the Bonanza about 30 minutes later on the taxiway as the Cessna was on the runway.

Although he had yet to speak with Helen, Rob said he spoke briefly with one of her sons and she is doing pretty well considering the harrowing experience of losing her husband, then having to compose herself enough to land an airplane she had not flown before. She also suffered some minor injuries.

"Helen really was the hero here," Rob said. "She was able to draw on her limited knowledge, focus, and do what it took to get on the ground."

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