Aviation’s everyman hero

Dick wouldn’t have wanted a long tribute. While nobody ever accused him of lacking confidence, Richard Collins was a surprisingly quiet and private man. His idea of a memorial would be a tall glass of whiskey and a nod. But I hope you’ll forgive me if I ignore his wishes and remember the life of a legend – and my aviation hero.

Collins in P210
Collins preferred to write from this perspective – in the cockpit.

Dick’s life story is fascinating and varied but you don’t need me to learn about that. He wrote widely and thoughtfully about his 20,000+ hours spent in the air over the past 65 years, from single pilot IFR in his beloved Cessna P210, N40RC, to trans-Atlantic trips in Concorde. These are recorded in thousands of articles for Air Facts, AOPA Pilot, and Flying, plus over a dozen books. That’s not to mention the 30+ videos he made through his long partnership with Sporty’s. He was prolific – when I talked to Dick last week, he was working on his latest article.

Other aviation writers worked with him for much longer than I did, but we did spend some fun years working together on Air Facts and I also had the privilege of publishing two of his books (his last, Logbooks, is as close as he ever got to writing an autobiography). In that time, I came to know Dick as an aviation enthusiast in the true sense of the phrase. He wasn’t one to wax poetic about the beauty of a sunset, but he absolutely loved what flying offered: freedom, adventure, challenge.

Dick came by this love honestly. His father Leighton was a legendary author and pilothimself, who pioneered the use of light airplanes for personal travel at a time when few Americans had been in an airplane. He founded Air Facts over 80 years ago, mostly to combat the dreadful safety record of general aviation airplanes at the time. When his son joined the family business in 1958, the focus on safety remained. Then, as now, stall/spin accidents topped the list, but the accident rate has declined by over 90% since 1938 – an accomplishment we should not take for granted, and one for which both Collins men deserve credit. I’ve lost count of the number of readers who have said, “Dick Collins saved my life one day because of an article he wrote.”

Perhaps Dick’s favorite subject was weather. He never approached this subject as a science, the way a meteorologist would, but as an art that required practice and curiosity. The focus for him was always on practical application of knowledge, and his Flying the Weather Map remains one of the finest books ever written on the subject. In just 40 pages, he vividly describes the key topics in weather, then uses the rest of the book to show these principles in action.

His weather philosophy could best be summed up by his common refrain, “What you see is what you get.” That sounded simplistic the first time I heard it, but after a long cross-country during my instrument training, when weather conditions changed rapidly for the worse, it all made sense. The point is, a TAF or radar image is a helpful tool, but it just doesn’t matter when the cloud in front of you is ugly. You have to fly the weather as it appears out the windshield.

N40RC and Richard
Collins flew almost 9,000 hours in his Cessna P210, N40RC.

The reason Dick wrote so engagingly about weather is that he flew in it, continually. While a trip around the patch in a Cub was fun for him, the real challenge of flying light airplanes was to travel. Most of his trips were in Cessna 172s and 210s – including almost 9,000 hours in N40RC – deviating around thunderstorms, climbing through ice, and battling crosswinds. In so doing, he proved that single engine piston airplanes can work for real transportation, and inspired a generation of pilots to follow in his footsteps. When he decided to stop flying at age 74, it was not because he couldn’t do it anymore, but rather because he didn’t think he could do it to the standard he set for himself. Namely, flying single pilot IFR in high performance airplanes.

Because of his long tenure at aviation magazines and his preference for straight talk, some readers saw Dick as a curmudgeon. That was never the man I knew. He eagerly embraced new technology, and loved to say, “May the good old days never come back.” While he disagreed with the salesmen who claimed every new avionics package would eliminate accidents, he actively embraced GPS, datalink weather, and glass cockpits.

That doesn’t mean he was a cheerleader. Dick was never afraid to call out uncomfortable facts throughout his career, from the shockingly bad twin safety record in the 1960s to the similarly poor Cirrus safety record early on. He was driven by the numbers, though: as the facts changed, he was one of the first to admit it (a rare trait these days). To take just one example, as the Cirrus safety record has improvedrecently, he celebrated it.

Who’s the next Dick Collins? There isn’t one. The days of huge magazine circulation and Concorde rides are over, so it’s hard to see anyone filling his shoes. General aviation is still a great industry – right now you might even call it healthy – but I can’t help but think that Collins’s passing represents the end of an era. Fortunately he took pride in mentoring young pilots and encouraged a generation (or maybe two) of aviation writers. The conversations he started about safety, weather, and the joys of personal air travel will continue – nowhere more proudly than here at Air Facts.

Whenever anyone would ask Dick how many hours he had logged, he would explain that it didn’t really matter. Mother Nature didn’t care whether you were a student pilot or an ATP; “only the next hour counts.” Here’s hoping that attitude is Richard Collins’s lasting legacy, and that we all approach every flight with an unwavering commitment to safety – just like he did.

We’ll have more tributes to Richard Collins coming shortly, from former Flying Editor-in-Chief Mac McClellan, former Flying photographer Russell Munson, Air Facts Managing Editor Patricia Luebke, and former AIN Editor Nigel Moll. To read some of Dick’s best Air Facts articles, click here.

18 Comments

  • Although I never met Mr. Collins, I’m sure there are countless pilots out there who, like me, feel a profound sense of loss today. I’ve learned more about flying from Dick Collins than from anyone else, and it’s an absolute certainty that his legacy will live on in the wisdom he imparted to all of us for so many years. He leaves behind a tremendous body of work, and I’ll continue to read and re-read (and view and re-view) it for the rest of my life.

  • For all his perfectionism, Dick had a stock philosophical response for when we’d screw something up at Flying back when I worked there. He’d say, “A hundred years from now, nobody’s gonna remember we were even here.” To which I once responded, “Maybe, but people will still be flying airplanes. And I bet they’re going to know about some guy named Collins who had a lot to say about how to do it.”

  • So sorry to hear of Mr. Collins’ passing. I first started reading his articles in FLYING way back when I was in junior high. It was always exciting to see a new issue had arrived at the newsstand in the grocery store I passed on the walk home from school, and I’d always page straight through toe either his column or feature article he wrote for the issue. I’d always hoped I’d bump into him at Osh or Sun-n-Fun so I could thank him for all of his wonderful articles and information that he’d passed along.

  • Beautifully articulated, John. It’s funny that so far I’ve read tributes by you and Pete Bedell and I wrote one myself. And all three have touched upon completely different facets of the man and the aviation legend. Which is probably why Dick never wrote that autobiography. So much life lived so well, and so much if it in the air.

  • Pilots everywhere have lost a great advocate and a true aviation legend — while this is sad news, I do feel joy in knowing that Richard has now been reunited with his beloved wife and copilot, Ann, who went on before him about five years ago. Thank you and well done, Mr. Collins.

  • I woke up to sad news this morning, I too would devour Flying leaving Mr.Collins for the end, hoping that some of his wisdom would rub on to me. He now joins his friends Len Morgan and Gordon Baxter, I can just imagine them comfortably sitting on some cozy cumulus nimbus amongst other legends like E.Gann, Saint-Exupery, sharing stories, having a drink, laughing and looking down upon us… hopefully they will concoct a joint publication, and when that comes out, I want a copy ! Godspeed and thank you for all those years of dedication.

  • Yesterday, unbeknownst to me the last of Mr. Collins’ days with us, I was thinking of him as I completed my first significant IFR trip since earning the privilege. I was returning up the east coast from North Carolina to Connecticut, initially in CAVU sunshine, then in twilight above a solid cloud deck from about 4500’ to 6500’, and finally in darkness below the ceiling just about the time I passed Philly on my left and headed toward NYC on my right. The simultaneous view of both bathed in brilliant electric light was spectacular, just as Richard wrote in one of his fine pieces that always sticks with me. A lot of what I’ve read from him over the past twenty years sticks with me, as the knowledge he shared was important and the writing delightful. May he have a perpetual tailwind as he takes on his new category and class of wings.

  • Richard Collins will be greatly missed. I learned much from his articles. “Flying the Weather Map” is one of his best books.

  • In 1960 I discovered a small digest size aviation publication entitled “Air Facts”. This magazine became part of my of life until it ceased being printed. Several years worth are still in my library today. That introduction led to my acquiring all the books which Richard later produced. Like many others have commented he had a tremendous influence on my flying and understanding of the world of flight.
    Although I never met him face to face, I did as an air traffic controller, have the privilege of communicating with N40RC several times. Thanks Richard!

  • Charlotte.
    Your cousin sounds like a wonderful man and made memorable contributions to aviatorsand aviation.Thank you for sharing. Stella

  • Thank you very much for a great tribute! I also enjoyed his collection of stories in his book “Logbooks – Life in Aviation.” It covered the fun as well as analytical and had moving stories of his father and wife. I loved it as probably the most personal book he ever wrote.

  • Great tribute John. Even Dick could be a bit wordy when writing about things he really cared about. There is only one thing you missed. Perhaps it was before your time. Dick did have a special love for the Cardinal RG he flew for a while. So John, please keep the Air Facts coming. There are more pilots out there to be saved, and you too have contributed to that effort. Thank you.

  • When I learned of Dick Collins’ ascension I was deeply saddened. He got me through my Sporty’s tapes (back then) with humor and wisdom.

    I still hear his comments in my ear today about “chasing the localizer” or “staying calm and cool is what does it.”

    Since I am the owner of his beloved 1974 Cessna Skyhawk 172M N40RG (Formerly N40RC) Dick Collins will forever fly with me!

    My heart and prayers go out to YOU (Mr. Collins) and your Family. May GOD bless and comfort all of you!

    Sincerely,
    Quintin Gerard W.
    The FnkySax Player!

  • As a pilot of ~60 years, having flown the piper cub, T-28, T-bird, B-47, F-84, F-86H, and owned and flew a Cessna 182, I have followed and used aviation information that Richard Collins has so skillfully provided for so many years!. Thank you, THANK YOU Dick.

  • Oh man, deeply saddened – how did it take me 3.5 weeks to hear of this? There’s no current AV writer I liked reading better. Thanks Dick, thanks AirFacts, Flying, et al!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *