One year ago, aviation lost a legend. Richard Collins was a pilot first and foremost, but he was also a writer, editor, mentor, and advocate. He changed – and in many ways defined – general aviation in the second half of the 20th century. While there haven’t been any new articles to enjoy over the last year, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still lessons to be learned. Richard left behind such a huge volume of writing over his 60+ year career that pilots will find rich rewards from re-reading his work.
In the year since his death, I’ve read a lot of his books and articles and I’ve also flown many flights where I could hear Richard’s voice in my head. In general, the lessons he reminds me of seem to center around four main ideas: building margins, managing weather, respecting technology, and flying for transportation.
Richard never wrote down a formal philosophy of flying, probably because he believed that kind of talk was nothing but hot air. But in re-reading many of his articles, one theme keeps coming up: risk management for the real world. While he didn’t use the jargon so beloved by the FAA these days, he took a very pragmatic approach to risk. He assumed that pilots would make mistakes, weather forecasts would be wrong, and equipment would fail. To him, the only answer was to build in margins.
That applies to almost all aspects of flying, including fuel, weather, weight and balance, performance, and pilot skill. For example, if the weather is 500 and 1 in moderate rain and the runway is short, that doesn’t necessarily mean the flight has to be cancelled. Richard would advise us to build in some safety margins, perhaps by taking extra fuel, having a solid gold alternate, landing during daylight hours, or brushing up on our short field technique.
There are two skills to practice here: building in extra margins during preflight planning, and then monitoring those margins during flight. If they ever get too thin, it’s time to abandon Plan A and head for safety.
The benefit of this approach, as opposed to robotic risk formulas or simplistic mnemonics, is that it leaves room for judgment and flexibility. It can’t be simplified into an equation, but that’s why the left seat is still occupied by a human. That flexibility and human creativity, for better and for worse, is what defines general aviation flying.
If risk management was Richard’s big idea, weather was where that idea was most often put into practice. He was a weather geek and proud of it, but he never claimed to be a meteorologist. The focus for him was always on how weather was experienced from the cockpit of a light airplane, which led directly to Collins’s first rule of weather flying: what you see is what you get. It sounds simple, almost obvious, but when it’s taken to heart it changes the way you fly. We have to react to the view out the front window, not what the TAF promised three hours ago. If it looks bad, it is bad, and it’s not up to ATC or datalink radar to make the right decision.
That doesn’t mean forecasts and weather reports should be ignored. Far from it – Richard was a believer in always knowing the big picture when it came to weather, going beyond a METAR to really understand what was going on in the atmosphere. Is there going to be icing at 8,000 feet today? Richard would first ask us where the lows are and where the cold fronts are. Then he’d want to hear about the 500mb analysis chart. This seems tedious at first, but I believe it’s the key to handling weather safely without panicking about it.
One of his other weather rules was that “nobody gets trapped by weather. There are always signs.” I take that as a challenge more than an established fact, but it’s one we should embrace. From reading weather charts to reading the clouds, there are plenty of places to find clues as to what Mother Nature is doing. We just have to stay curious.
Many readers would call Richard “old school,” but I always admired his approach to technology because he carefully straddled the line between the tech boosters and the Luddites. Even well into his 70s, he embraced new technology, flying glass cockpit airplanes and geeking out on datalink weather systems. He knew progress when he saw it, and often quipped, “May the good old days never return.”
And yet Richard was never a slave to technology. Famously suspicious of autopilots, he argued forcefully that the human in the left seat must be pilot in command at all times, whether George was flying or not. I would love to read the article he might write on the Boeing 737 MAX controversy; I suspect he would have some ideas for improving the MCAS system but would also recommend some serious changes to pilot training.
This balanced approach is a model for how modern pilots should handle the endless debate about technology vs. pilot skills. Instead of viewing this as an either/or choice, we should use technology any place it can improve safety, but never give up our central decision-making role.
One final lesson might be the one we forget most often: light airplanes can be used for serious transportation. For Richard, this was what flying was all about. He had nothing against gliders or sunset flights in tailwheel airplanes, but for him that was not the real joy of being a pilot. “Running the traps,” as he called it, meant going where you wanted, when you wanted – and getting the job done. Single-pilot IFR was the best, often challenging and yet immensely rewarding.
Once again he practiced what he preached here, flying all over the country in all kinds of weather – usually in a single-engine Cessna. He was never a show-off or a cowboy, but he proved that ordinary pilots can beat the airlines on a lot of trips if they are serious about staying sharp. This doesn’t mean we should blast off into severe thunderstorms just to stay on schedule, but it does challenge us to be our best and not cancel on a forecast.
Here’s a bonus Collins tip for all the writers out there: never, ever miss a deadline. Richard was serious about turning in your article on time, whether you were the intern or the editor in chief. After all, if the boss doesn’t respect a deadline, why should the new guy? Just another example of a confidently humble man who liked to walk the walk.