Learning from the master

The letter from Richard L. Collins, on engraved FLYING Magazine letterhead, was terse: “Why don’t you call me and we will set up a time to interview.” That was it. But for a recently-graduated English major living in New York City in 1982, that was enough. I first met Dick in the Park Avenue offices of FLYING Magazine, but I got to know Dick – and learned to fly – in Dick’s real office, the cockpit of 40RC, his Cessna P210. During my years at FLYING as a staffer and then as a freelance columnist, I made about 110 flights in over 500 hours in 40RC. They all began with my taking the train from Manhattan to West Windsor, New Jersey. Because Dick and Ann got up early and retired early, I received permission to dip into the special bookshelf at Dick’s home that held every issue of the original Air Facts. I spent hours reading articles by Dick and his father Leighton not to mention others, like Wolfgang Langewiesche who were, or became, historic figures.

Richard Collins' Cessna P210
Flying with Collins meant flying 40RC – in all kinds of weather.

Our flights from Trenton began early, and we brought lunch, prepared by Ann, which consisted of baloney on white bread, Fritos, and Coke, or later Diet Coke, served from a Stanley thermos. It seemed as though all of the controllers knew 40RC, and it was not at all unusual to receive our initial altimeter setting followed by “Hey Richard.” According to my logbook, we flew cross-country twice and made countless flights from Trenton to Wichita or Kerrville or Vero Beach (I still have a Mojave model given to the press by Piper at the original Malibu/Mojave rollout). Then there were the one-off flights, like the time we took 40RC to Edmonton for a story on commercial flights near the North Pole, or the trip to Oklahoma City to see the Gulfstream single-engine jet prototype called the “Hustler.” And of course, there was the annual flight to Green Bay for the Oshkosh airshow.

Flying left seat with Dick Collins was an experience that some dreaded, but which I came to love. Prior to planting myself in the left seat of 40RC, I had flown nothing more complex than a Cessna 172, and was in the midst of a multi-year effort to obtain my instrument rating. I was a rank beginner and a very marginal pilot, but I had the extraordinary good fortune to have been paired with perhaps the best flight instructor of all time. He was not just my flight instructor, he was the world’s flight instructor, and though I did not realize it at the time, my job was not just to write stories for FLYING, but to provide clinical data for Dick on how marginal neophyte pilots come to mischief. I did at least one of my jobs well, and we carried the formula through two books presenting a Socratic dialogue between student and master.

The cockpit of 40RC was a place where the pilot flew, not the autopilot. I know that the airplane was equipped with a basic wing leveler, but I did not know how to turn it on, and that was fine, since I would never have dared. While I would not trade the Garmin autopilot in my Cirrus today, neither would I trade a moment of those hours droning along in 40RC – striving for perfection – only to hear the drawl beside me: “Patrick, don’t chase that needle, the VOR is 150 miles away.” Or, when about to dip more than 90 feet above or below our assigned altitude, “Patrick, you may want to retrim the elevator.”

On our flights across the country we, of course, encountered weather. In fact, for Richard Collins, weather was what made things interesting. Richard Collins loved flying because of the challenge of understanding and safely outwitting the weather through knowledge and skill. In the days before onboard Nexrad and CIP/FIP plots, I do not recall Dick cancelling a flight, although deviations and route changes were common. Most importantly, Dick understood aviation weather better than most meteorologists, and we students of Richard Collins read each month his caution that, regardless of what the forecast said, you really could never know the weather for sure until you got there. “What you see is what you get.” And he said it over and over: in a head-to-head between a thunderstorm and an airplane, the thunderstorm will win.

Dick’s amazing skills as a pilot and instructor became most apparent when the weather was bad. I remember a story that we did shortly after I earned my instrument rating while at FLYING. We were discussing a spate of accidents caused by pilots busting minimums and Dick had the idea of taking me on a flight in low IMC conditions – I was the guinea pig for a number of his stories – where I would have to encounter an actual missed approach for the first time. We flew the approach, and if it were possible to strangle an airplane with a choke hold on the yoke, 40RC would have died then and there. But in an airplane with Richard Collins present, the cockpit always was a place of calm.

Flying article
The guinea pig for many of Richard’s flying experiments.

Dick talked me through the procedure, step by step. “Okay, you’re on the localizer, get ready for descent.” “Keep up your scan.” “How much further to minimums?” “100 feet to minimums.” “You’re at minimums.” “You’re AT minimums.” Richard Collins never raised his voice, but he spoke the words with an intensity that caused me to regain focus. I was confused by my ability to see straight down, but there was nothing at all in front of us. Can we descend further? Is this the airport environment? Negative. Power and pitch, flaps and gear and away we went. That was an incredibly valuable lesson to me. One of hundreds that I received in the left seat of 40RC.

In the years that followed our flights in 40RC, Dick and I spoke regularly about aviation and accidents and airplane safety. When I got my first Cirrus, I brought it to Frederick. Maryland, to show him the airplane. I hoped that he would be pleased that those hundreds of hours of lessons were not wasted. Today I use my Cirrus in much the same way he used 40RC – as year-round transportation though all sorts of weather. On that day, his only words were, “Fly safely, Patrick.”

But that was enough, because Dick had said and written so much that I carry with me to this day. And when I am flying a low approach or finding my way through an area of thunderstorms, or when my focus wants to drift at the wrong time, I still hear Dick’s calming words from the right seat. I am proud to be among a generation of pilots who had the honor and opportunity to learn from a true master and a true gentleman.

13 Comments

  • After learning of his passing, I reached for my treasured copy of Instrument Flying Refresher to spend a few more moments reading his words. It is truly the end of an era.

  • Well done Patrick.
    Excellent and touching piece on the loss of your dear friend and mentor. A fitting salute to Dick and to GA flying from a first hand perspective. Thanks for sharing some of those memories. And by the way, because I have spent a few hours in the cockpit with you Patrick, I can also note, that you too are an outstanding resource and mentor to those of us who have flown with you.

  • Wow, I had forgotten about the single engine jet visit you made to Gulfstream in OKC. I was part of the team that made the conversion from the American Jet Hustler 500 with the turboprop in the nose and jet engine in the back, to the single engine pitot inlet VLJ. I was responsible for all the preliminary performance calculations for the plane. What a fun time!

    I have read all of Richard’s books. He is an icon that will be very much missed.

  • My father began flying single engine/single pilot IFR in the 1950’s when Leighton & Richard’s Air Facts office was in Princeton, NJ. Dad read everything by the Collins’s and I have many office Air Facts editions he passed on that I still read. My brother & I were inspired to be instrument pilots who use our airplanes for transportation. Who will be the next icon to inspire us to fly single engine/single pilot IFR and use light aircraft for reliable and safe transportation? I sure hope he/she comes along soon because if activity on ATC is any indication there’s not much of it going on these days. Thank you Richard for making our passion a publication for all.

  • After nearly 2000 hours in the same single engine piston after obtaining my private pilot immediately followed by an instrument rating, I can truthfully say I learned more about flying from Dick Collins than anyone else on the planet and I never even met him. He spoke and wrote about real flying in real situations and how to avoid or get out of sticky situations , not simply quoting FAA regulations as others do. I stopped by Sporty’s tent at Sun n Fun and asked a young man there about Dick. I got a blank stare and he got an explanation from another young sales clerk there that he was “one of the old timers.” I feel sorry for all the young pilots that overlook his lifetime treasure trove of wisdom.

  • Well-said, Patrick, as always. I only met Dick once in person but like legions of other pilots, felt he was a good and trusted friend. And his writing style, so unaffected and natural, flowed as effortlessly as raindrops streaming up an aircraft windshield in flight. I’ll always feel a deep satisfaction just beginning one of his pieces, let alone at the end.
    His passing is one rvery thoughtful pilot hopes for: peacefully at home with family. You’ve successfully completed life’s last checklist.

  • That’s it. I also felt like he was a good and trusted friend, even though we only interacted personally on a few occasions. Thank you Gary, that is perfect. And what a legacy that is.

  • You were a lucky pilot to have spent so many hours with the master. I am thankful he shared so much of his knowledge in books and articles. Thank you for sharing.

  • Absolutely great article – you’re a lucky pilot to spend that much time seated next to the Grand master of private aviation! thanks for your insight….

Leave a Reply

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