“Do a loop Daddy…”
My father, Leighton Collins, started flying five or six years before I was born in 1933 and before I reached the age where I could remember things (about three), he had been a business user of airplanes as well as a test pilot for Monocoupe and an Aeronca C-3 salesman. In other words, when I came along, he was well on his way into aviation. My earliest recollection is of the Taylor E-2 Cubs he sold and used for primary instruction out of his base in Fordyce, Arkansas.
I can even remember that some of my earliest words were aviation-related. “Do a loop, Daddy” was a favorite. At age three, I did like those loops. I can even remember that I looked out the side, at the wing, when looping. This was probably done because I was a little short at the time and couldn’t see over the nose. Later, when I could do loops of my very own, I still thought they were a lot of fun. Where my father had done his loops with 40 horsepower, I always had a minimum of 65. Big difference.
The Great Depression was in full swing and folks were mainly interested in food on the table. Still, some wanted to learn to fly and a few wanted to buy airplanes. My father’s deep interest in flying led him to instructing in the Cub and selling at least one, though he did have another job of sorts, working for an insurance agency. I remember his wearing a green eyeshade while working on the books and that was definitely not him. I guess he had two personalities, the insurance person and the aviator. The latter was more fun.
When he could line up enough work, he would fly the 50 miles to El Dorado, Arkansas, and give dual instruction there all day. There were not many two-car families at the time so when he returned from El Dorado, he would buzz the house and we’d go to the little airport to pick him up.
One afternoon, my brother and I could tell he had something in the airplane with him when he returned. After he stopped, a Cocker Spaniel puppy bounded out of the airplane; the feel-good story would have the puppy jumping with excitement over the two little boys who would love him dearly. In reality, the puppy was really frightened and ran under the car.
That contributed to an early beginning of my vocabulary expansion plan. When my father reached under the car to extract the puppy, the little dog bit him. I remembered the words but it was years before I dared to use them myself.
In honor of how he came to us, we gave the Cocker an aeronautical name: Spinner, full name Spinner Topper Collins.
The same year, when I was three, a barnstorming Ford Trimotor came to town, selling rides. I got to get in it and well remember the steeply slanted aisle with single wicker seats along each side of the cabin as well as the space-age instrument panel. Alas, though, I didn’t get to ride. It was probably a matter of either/or, either ride or eat supper that night.
There was an aviation-related event on the back porch of our house in Fordyce. My father had brought part of the E-2 engine, or maybe the whole engine, home to work on it. The 40-horse single-ignition powerplant weighed all of 144 pounds so with a little help he could have brought the whole thing.
He had some 73 octane gas in a ginger ale bottle to wash parts and surely I don’t have to tell you what happened next. Maybe that explains a lot of things as well as why I wasn’t so crazy about ginger ale after that. After I had cleaned myself out, the town doctor checked me out and said if they put a carburetor on me I would run. If a kid drank leaded gas today, there would be panic in the streets.
In late 1937, when I was four, we moved to New York City where my father would be starting Air Facts. We lived in Forest Hill Gardens, in Queens. The area was still rich with airports and I remember flying with my father from some of them as well as from Roosevelt Field and Flushing airports, where he based the J-5 Cub Cruiser he got a while after we moved to New York.
To a kid, those airports and the people who ran them were a big treat. Most of the airport operators were salt-of-the-earth types as they had to be to have survived the Great Depression in the airplane business. Two I remember were Spinny Leech from Roosevelt Field and Speed Hanzlik from Flushing.
To give you an idea of the number of airports around New York at the time I’ll list some airport names I found in my father’s logbooks. (Note to readers: If you don’t want your kids to know everything you did, burn those logbooks right before you check out.)
We flew from Holmes, Jackson Heights, Floyd Bennett, Hicksville, Armonk, Mineola, the Babylon seaplane base, Grumman, Rye Lake, Basking Ridge, LaGuardia and Staten Island, to name a few. I guess my brother George wasn’t keen on flying because I was the one who most often went to the airport.
I’ll always remember something I saw at Floyd Bennett. We were waiting to take off behind what I thought was the ugliest airplane I had ever seen. It was a Brewster Buffalo, built in the U. S. but not operated much by our services. I think we gave most of them away. They were effective only in distracting the enemy by making him laugh.
On December 7, 1941, my father and his great friend Wolfgang Langewiesche flew the J-5 to Wurtsboro, New York, to watch some kind of soaring activity. The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor happened while they were there but, surprisingly, there was no immediate restriction on flying and they got home that evening.
Adults didn’t know what would come next and eight year old boys knew less. I asked my father if we would still be able to go flying and he was truthful in saying he didn’t know.
Fly we did, though, and in July, 1942, we were still flying from Flushing, which was across the bay from LaGuardia and underneath its traffic pattern.
Cross-country flying was regulated but not yet completely restricted and my father was off on a trip in August, 1942, when he decided that the slow speed at which he was flying was wearing him down. In the middle of the trip, during a stop in Clarksdale, Tennessee, he swapped for a Culver Cadet. He got the LFA model, with an 80-horse Franklin engine, N41633, and his speed jumped all the way up to 120 mph. The Culver came from Franklin Knapp and I corresponded with his wife many years later.
Before my father got back in the Culver, flying along the east coast had been pretty well shut down because of the war. The closest place to New York he could find a legal home for the airplane was Latrobe, Pennsylvania. That was quite a hike but the jaunty little Culver made it worthwhile.
The only way to get to Latrobe (or anywhere else that was more than a rationed gallon of gas away) was by train. It was an outing just to go flying but I remember going there with him one time. We rode the train for a long time, flew a little in the afternoon, spent the night, went flying again the next morning, and then rode back to New York on the train. I always think about that when I hear people grousing about the fact that the airport is thirty minutes away.
As events unfolded, aviation restrictions were eased and the Culver base was moved to Easton, Pennsylvania, to Ed and Lib Braden’s idyllic grass airport. The train ride was shorter and I got to go flying more often. Ed and Lib were wonderful people and I knew them well after I grew up and used their airport to work with our Air Facts printer who was just down the road from their airport.
In June 1944 things really opened up and it was back to Flushing, which was pretty convenient to our home in Forest Hills. I often rode my bike to LaGuardia to watch airplanes and suppose I could have made it to Flushing.
I was a little bigger kid by this time and my father was keen on instrument flying. His Culver was placarded against intentional instrument flying but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t practice. I suppose there were no rules about safety pilot qualifications at the time so I qualified. Instructed to keep a sharp eye out and tell him if I saw another airplane, he’d practice needle, ball and airspeed flying.
This was done in the New York area. Today, that would be a foolish thing to do but then there was a paucity of air traffic in the area. The airlines had only a couple of hundred airplanes in which to roam the whole country, there was not much private flying, and by that time the military was pretty much avoiding major metropolitan area airspace. I can remember spotting only a few airplanes in an hour or more of flying.
After the war ended, there was endless excitement about new airplanes. My father shared a lot of this with me and I remember those first years after they war as being almost magical. New airplanes were introduced and there was boundless optimism.
We went out to Roosevelt Field one day to await, with a crowd, the arrival of the Johnson Rocket. This 185-horsepower 2/3 place retractable was from Texas and, as was common then, had a high reputed cruising speed of 180 mph. Allegedly, it was to arrive non-stop from Fort Worth, Texas. It was late and rumor had it that the arrival was from New Jersey, not Texas.
The Johnson Rocket was as pretty as its pictures. It looked a lot like the Culver Cadet and V, and the Globe Swift, and some connection was made between its designer and those other airplanes. Alas, like so many others, the dream didn’t become a reality and less than 20 Rockets were built. Incidentally, a lot of the designs that did not make it were fully certified.
I went with my father to an introduction of the North American Navion. It was the ultimate airplane to a 13 year old boy and I actually got a ride in the right front seat. That was a real thrill.
My parents split in 1947, when I was 13 going on 14 and I moved with my mother back to Arkansas. My father continued to feed my aviation interests and I went with him in 1948 to the Luscombe factory in Texas to fly the Luscombe Sedan.
That biggest Luscombe came off as being really big and quite spacious in the back seat where I rode. I looked at one at Oshkosh a few years ago and it was as I remembered. It was maybe a bit more angular than I remembered but that was back when a lot of things were more angular than they are now.
My father’s Culver Cadet bit the dust in early 1949 at the hand of an Air Facts employee. We had called it “Plain Vanilla,” in honor of the paint color and lack of extensive striping, and I was sad to hear of its demise. I had ridden a lot of hours in that little airplane and when I look at a rare one today it gives my heartstrings a tug.
My father got a Piper Clipper after that and he picked me up in Arkansas in the summer of 1949 and I rode with him back to Linden, New Jersey, which had become his New York-area base. The Clipper was not particularly comfortable and that is remembered as one long day. By the time I started flying in 1951 he had a Piper Pacer, which I later came to possess.
After I had served in the U. S. Army for a while and worked some as an instructor and a pilot, I finally stepped into the ultimate fatherly footstep and started a career in the aviation magazine business that began in 1958 and has not quite ended yet.
Flying with my father meant that airplanes were part of my life from the very beginning. I have seen the highs and the lows as well as all in between and I have enjoyed every minute of it. Someone asked me if I grew up around airplanes. I said, no, I grew up with airplanes and airplane people and by the time I was 13 I had met most of the movers and shakers in aviation and flown in a goodly number of the airplanes.
Thanks for the airplane ride, Pop, and Happy Father’s Day.