70 years ago: a first lesson and a first article

These logbook entries are from my father, Leighton Collins’s, logbooks:

08/01/1947 – Culver NC41633, Franklin 80, Mineola, LaGuardia, Glens Falls, 2:15

08/02/1947 – Ercoupe NC95464, Cont. 75, Glens Falls, 1:00 instruction

08/03/1947 – Ercoupe NC95464, Cont. 75, Glens Falls, 1:00 instruction

08/03/1947 – Culver NC41633, Franklin 80, Glens Falls, Mineola, 2:10 

Those are the details of a father/son flying weekend 70 years ago. I wrote about it in in the November, 1947 issue of AIR FACTS and I am writing about it again 70 years later, using the same three fingers that I have been using the whole time.

The original article:

I am not much for commemorations, preferring a windshield over a rear view mirror view. But, hey, maybe I have set a record: 70 years and still going so I’ll offer that up for contemplation and as well as a challenge to the younger folks in this business today. It would make me proud if someone did it for longer.

I do remember that day in Glens Falls: Great weather, pretty country, and a brand new airplane for a flying adventure. I remember wanting to land the Ercoupe way above the runway, too, and the admonition about being ground shy. I don’t know that I ever heard anyone other than my father or Wolfgang Langewiesche use that term but they did speak the same language though with quite different accents, Texas and German.

Roosevelt Airport NY
Roosevelt Field was once a busy airport, but now it’s a shopping mall.

On the log entries, Mineola was Roosevelt Field, on Long Island, where Charles Lindbergh took off for Paris 20 years earlier. It is a shopping center now. The hop to LaGuardia was to pick me up. I had flown in from Little Rock on an American Airlines DC-3. We went to Glens Falls for a little water sport on Lake George in addition to the flying. The registration numbers on airplanes were still using the NC prefix at the time, later changed to plain old N.

World War Two was just about two years behind us at the time. The War Production Board had ended a prohibition on the production of civil airplanes a few months before the end of the war and a lot of companies had started cranking up to meet an anticipated overwhelming demand for light airplanes. Some of the projected numbers were even in the millions, based on the presumption that everyone who could afford an airplane would just naturally buy one.

The biggest factor in the post-war boom was really the G.I. Bill, for veterans. It would pay the full cost of flight training plus a stipend for living expenses. There was an initial rush to this program and a lot of training airplanes were built to satisfy the demand. Then reality set in: with all those pilots returning from military service, what chance would a newly-trained pilot have at the few available jobs?

There was a milestone before reality set in. In 1946 the production of airplanes reached a level not seen before or since: 33,254 airplanes were delivered that year. The number dropped off quickly and by 1951, when I was old enough to solo, it was in the two thousands. That is where it is today, but the dollar value is a bit changed by Gulfstreams and the like.

When I got those first flying lessons, about half the general aviation fleet was powered by engines of 65 horsepower or less. J-3 Cubs comprised about 20-percent of the total fleet. The only executive airplane being produced was the Model 18 twin Beech.

The industry was looking past those 65 horsepower trainers and a lot of really functional four-place airplanes were coming to market. The first pilot report in any aviation magazine after World War Two was right here, in the November, 1945, issue of Air Facts. My father said this about the new 150-hp Stinson Voyager: It is a good-climbing, quiet, moderately fast, quick stopping, easy-to-fly airplane. I got to fly one later and it really is a great airplane.

When reading his comments on the Stinson, I paused momentarily at his mention of quick stopping. What did he mean? Then I recalled how a lot of the pre-war airplanes had lousy (or no) brakes. Stinson had apparently remedied this in the Voyager and later in the article he wrote more about the strong brakes. That’s just a little progress that we later took for granted.

In 1947 my father and I were not having lengthy conversations about the business aspects of private flying but we did talk enough for me to get a sense of what he was thinking.

Everyone knew that the big production of 1946 wouldn’t last but nobody knew whether it would taper off gradually or go bust. The fact that 1947 production rates were cut in half and financial strains were appearing at some companies suggested more of a bust. Ercoupe, for example, was in trouble before the end of 1946.

You have to consider the people who were involved, too. My father was 45 at the time and he had been there and done that in the 1927-1932 period. He had gone through the absolute high of the Roaring Twenties boom and the absolute low of the bust that led to the Great Depression of the 1930s. A lot of people had similar experiences and while many were reluctant to say it out loud there was trepidation about what would come next in aviation. Deja vu all over again.

Air Facts cover
In 1947, Air Facts cost $3 per year for a subscription.

At 13, all that was above my pay grade and I was living for the moment. I knew that a few landings in an Ercoupe didn’t mean that I was a pilot but I could at least dream on and dream I did. Like all kids, I built model airplanes – they were all either balsa and tissue paper or wood at the time – and I went flying every chance I got.

I also relived that Ercoupe flying. I had flown as a passenger enough to know what it looked like, yet with my hands on the handlebars I had trouble with the sight picture, thus the high flare and ground shy tendency. I had no idea what led to this. Still don’t. It is just something that finally clicks and then it becomes pretty simple.

I also wondered how that flying would have gone in a Cub or a Cessna 140. An Ercoupe was a tricycle gear, two-control airplane with no rudder pedals that was designed to be easy to fly. Less training was required in an Ercoupe than in other light airplanes. After two hours in a Cub, could I have come close to what I managed in the Ercoupe? Was it an airplane for sissies? Despite such thoughts, I was still pretty proud of what I had done.

I honestly don’t remember if I was proud of the article that I wrote. I look at it now and wonder if it was just a product of a father owning an aviation magazine and a 13-year old boy owning a typewriter. Eleven years later I went to work full time for AIR FACTS. In that interim I messed with school, was editor of my high school newspaper for two or three years, worked at a small-town weekly newspaper, was in the U. S. Army stationed at the Army Aviation School at Ft. Rucker where I was on the staff of The Army Aviation Digest for a short while, got all my ratings through instructor and airline transport, married the love of my life, Ann, and had occasional contributions in AIR FACTS. I had both printer’s ink and avgas in my blood and they were there (here) to stay.

That aside, here I sit, 70 years later, pecking away with the same three fingers, 20,000 flight hours, over 1,500 magazine articles, thirteen books and a whole bunch of video productions later. Sage? Oracle? BS Artist? Survivor? Windbag? Old fool? I have been called every one of those, and a lot more, so you get to take your choice. I will just say that it has been a wonderful challenge, a whole lot of fun, and I managed to make a decent living along the way. I always felt like I had the best job in the world.

And you know what? I’m still at it. In the good old days, businesses marked their time by the year they were established. My grandfather’s furniture store advertised: When Collins says it is oak, it is oak. Since 1891. I’ll just say: Flyin’ & Writin,’ Since 1947.

28 Comments

  • I’ve been reading and watching for 30 of your 70 years and I’ve learned more about flying from you than from any other author or instructor. Thank you for all the wisdom you’ve passed along to so many pilots for so many years. Keep the articles coming!

  • Thank you very much for your great contribution to aviation dear Richard.
    Your wisdom is appreciated.
    I look up to you !!!!
    Cheers.

  • There was a time when I had a 30-year collection of Flying magazines largely due to your articles and the wisdom embedded in them. During those days, I thought of you as America’s Flight Instructor. Still do!

  • You got me in this crazy business too. I’m catching up on the hours but never on the article count! Thanks for the decades of service.

  • My first solo was also in an Ercoupe (N3174H, Jan 29, 2011, Watertown WI) It took me more than 2 hours of training, but it still produced that same SE grin.

  • Richard,

    I have been an avid reader of many of your books and articles, since starting my flying life after reading Franklin Kingston Smith’s, “Weekend Pilot”. That was 42 years ago. Here’s to another 20 years of reading your writings and teachings!

  • Congratulations on achieving seventy years amongst the clouds. However, in response to your challenge about those who had flown longer, I’ve read of a Royal Aero Club member, who after a lifetime in the air, was still flying his Auster aged one hundred and three! So, I’ll see you and raise you thirty three years more. May you fly for many years more.

  • Richard,

    I’ve been reading your contributions since forever and as all who did the same,
    I thank you for keeping me from augering in after fifty years of flying air
    machines.

    Tony Nieto

  • I was born in 1940 and my dad who learned to fly in the Army took me up for my first flight when I was about 8. It was also an Ercoupe, up in MN out in the boonies, where now it’s all houses. I remember how the houses looked like little toys.
    With a couple thousand hrs. of recreational flights in 50 yrs. of flying and with all your great books and videos showing me how to really use my instrument rating, it was wonderful.

  • Congratulations Dick! Proud to have shared a masthead with you on one of FLYING’s ‘Show Daily’ operations at Oshkosh was back in the late ’70s, and later as FLYING’s European Correspondent.

  • Dear King Richard,
    I got bit when a neighbor’s son won a Piper Cub in the late 30s by entering a Wings Cigarette contest! Mr. Earl, the father, didn’t even know his son smoked! I’ll never forget sitting in that beautiful yellow J-3 at Byrd Airport, RIC. Fast forward to 1954 USN flight training where I damn near washed out trying to learn how NOT to flare too high in SNJ Texans. Oh Lordy, having the 61.56(a) flight review next Tuesday in our N13752(172M same yellow/white as yours) and still working hard on every landing to flare properly.
    Congratulations Dick and THANKS for all your excellent articles, books and videos.
    Dan Coffman

  • I would like more information on Richard Collins books, especially DVD’s on flying of anything like ATC communications, flying cross country etc and learning how to fly. How to pass the text, text questions and reading the charts. If there is a way to help me, I would appreciate it with all my heart. I am a person of very limited funds or even not much if at all financial help. Please, would you help me.

    Sincerely,

    David G

  • I consider it a high mark in my life to have met both you and Gordon Baxter at our airport banquet at Pryor Field, Decatur, Alabama over 20 years ago. We arranged to have your previous airplane, Piper N125RC, there as well. Good memories, and I trust you remember it as well. Best wishes to you.

    • Richard, At same Pryor Field meeting I brought my `79 P210N and you discovered it had the door off your P210 and was 1 serial number apart! What an honour to meet you and know we were flying your P`s brother!!

  • Richard, thank you for your service to all of us. I have read many of your articles and a few of your books. There is no question you have helped me dodge the hunter for my measly but wonderful 4000 hours of private aviation.

  • Richard, I don’t believe I have missed any of your articles since since I got my license 45 years ago. Great reading and please keep on writing.

  • Richard, remember you have also big fans in the far south! Always waiting for your stories and your good advices.
    Thanks for your life!!!!

  • Richard —

    Thanks for being with me throughout my flying years (getting my license in ’82); you’re always a delight to read, and I’ve benefited from your wisdom. Keep on writing!

    David

  • I’ve read much of your work over the past 40 or so years. I had laid off of flying for almost 35 years when I got the bug again last Fall. I was with my car club at a combo car cruise/EAA fly-in. My friend and I were looking at the planes and I was telling him how much I had always loved Ercoupes. Then I looked up and there was an Ercoupe in the pattern! He landed and I was smitten.
    I got my medical renewed, a BFR, and soon bought an Ercoupe.
    Life is good!

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