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.
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.
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.