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.
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.
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.