It’s one thing to be cool under pressure. It’s quite another to be an inexperienced pilot landing a plane while your husband is in critical condition beside you.

On Monday, 81-year-old John Collins and his wife, Helen, 80, were flying from Florida to their home in Wisconsin, with John piloting their small Cessna. Several miles out from their destination, he suddenly collapsed at the controls, forcing his wife to take over and land the plane.

It wasn’t Helen’s first time as a pilot, but she hadn’t used her limited skills in some 30 years. The couple’s son, Richard, a pilot himself, worked with the Cherryland Airport in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. to send up the family’s other plane with a pilot to shadow his mother and help her land while another pilot communicated with her from the ground.

After 90 minutes of circling the airport and doing several fly-by maneuvers as practice runs, Helen brought the plane down on the runway. It wasn’t the smoothest of landings — a hard bounce caused the landing gear to break — but it wasn’t the crash several people feared.

The couple was rushed to the hospital, where John was pronounced dead from a suspected heart attack. Helen has a crushed vertebra, but was expected to be released on Wednesday.

Richard, while grief-stricken about his father, laughed through his tears as he described his mother’s bravery. “I can’t even tell her how to run a computer, let alone land a plane,” he said. “It was a very trying time. I thought I was going to lose them both.”

Listen to audio as airport officials communicate with each other about the situation:

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