To a neophyte pilot and aviation journalist in the 1970s, meeting Richard L. Collins for the first time was like meeting God.
It was at the 1978 Reading Show in Pennsylvania, and I was in my fourth year as an editor and writer with the British weekly Flight International. As a pilot, I devoured FLYING magazine from cover to cover each month; as a writer, I regarded it with awe. FLYING was the hometown glossy for general aviation worldwide, filled with the best airplane writing, photography and flying adventures, and Richard had recently been appointed editor-in-chief.
Flight had assigned me to cover the then vibrant event in Reading, and I met Dick at a Bellanca press reception there one evening. To my astonishment, he concluded our cordial 15-minute chat by saying, “Be sure and send me your resume when you get home.”
Within a month I was at the magazine’s HQ at One Park Avenue, New York, NY (a bullseye address if ever there was one) for a more formal interview, and an informal dinner at the Collins home near Princeton, NJ, with Richard; his wife, Ann; and FLYING writer and photographer Russell Munson. Dick and I piled into Russ’s Mercedes sedan in Manhattan, and we headed through the Lincoln Tunnel south to Princeton. Russ negotiated the traffic and potholes with gusto, and his high-G assaults on various on-ramps drew much guffawing from Dick as he was flung around the back seat. Thus early on I saw the human side of Dick, who could be perceived by some as a tad reserved. That was the first of many beef tenderloin dinners (“buffalo tongue,” as he called it) at the Collins residence.
About a year later, with immigration papers in hand, I landed at JFK with two suitcases and high hopes and took a cab to One Park Avenue. Two days later, Dick threw a July 4 party for the magazine staff at his home, with the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack flying in the front yard. Such a warm welcome.
Within short order I accompanied Dick to Wichita for my first visit to the air capital of the world. We launched from Trenton Mercer County Airport at 0-dark-thirty in Dick’s newly acquired P210. It was the first of many trips in N40RC, and each flight was always preceded by his asking, “Do you wanna fly or ride?” “Fly, please!”
Dick put his money, and his heinie, where his mouth was with the P210. He seldom flew it at night, as I recall, but virtually no weather prevented him from the swift completion of his appointed rounds on the pumped-up, de-iced, radar-equipped Cessna’s single engine. Some maintain he single-handedly killed the market for light piston twins with his strong thoughts on the “false promise of the second engine.”
As his many books attest, Dick was a bottomless font of knowledge gleaned from logging many thousands of hours in pretty much every GA and business aviation airplane type ever built. A couple of Dick’s favorites were “Keep the pointy end forward and the dirty side down” as he wished you well on an upcoming flight, and “No matter how many hours are in your logbook, the only hour that counts is the next one.” His quest for safety and his analysis of safety failures was exhaustive and inexhaustible.
Over the years Dick owned various airplanes, but it was a painting of his Piper Pacer that earned pride of place over the fireplace at home. His email address was [email protected]…, and if memory serves, that was the Pacer. There was also a Cessna Cardinal RG and 172 Skyhawk before the P210. His office at home was lined with desktop models of every airplane on which he had written a pilot report.
Dick was adamant that the future of general aviation lay in the business use of airplanes, at a time when shipments from Cessna, Beech and Piper were entering a steep decline from their peak of nearly 18,000 in 1978. His fervor on this topic could occasionally be perplexing: I remember an editorial meeting once where we were pondering the “cover blurbs” for the next issue. One of them contained the word “fun” and Dick nixed it, citing “negative connotations.”
That said, he recognized the appeal of less serious stuff to FLYING’s readers, and I was fortunate indeed that he gave me pretty much free rein to fly and photograph and write about the fun stuff, from aerobatic airplanes and amphibs to rides in some insanely exciting military hardware. It was OK to show and tell the fun stuff; just don’t label it “fun” in big letters on the cover.
If there was one airplane above all others with which Dick was besotted, it has to be Concorde, something I shared with him with equal intensity. Dick’s introduction to the SST was on a Dassault press trip on an Air France airplane in the mid-1980s. He wrote about the experience from his perspective in the cabin, remarking on the airplane’s fondness for runway length. British Airways Concorde Captain John Cook wrote to Dick inviting him to ride in the jumpseat of a BA Concorde to see the whole process from the sharp end, and thus began an enduring and close friendship between the two pilots. Dick ended up riding on that magnificent flying machine 14 times (twice my tally of seven, again thanks to John Cook). John is remembered by all who saw him bring Concorde to EAA Oshkosh for the first time in 1985 and pour the coals to the four afterburning Olympus turbojets for a touch and go. For both Dick and me, lunch with John in Manhattan was always something to look forward to.
Dick’s passing elicits sadness and shock. I had lunch with him near his home in Maryland this past February 14 as I was en route to North Carolina to look at and fly a couple of Baron B55s with a view to a possible purchase. Dick was frailer than he had been when we last had lunch a couple of years earlier, but still in good spirits and as quick to laugh as ever. He never mentioned the “false promise” of a twin’s second engine but did try to impress on me the likelihood of fiscal shock that operating such an airplane would inevitably inflict at some stage.
Just last Monday I texted him a photo of my newly acquired Bonanza A36 after flying it home to Upstate New York from South Dakota. “Looks great!” he responded. “Not a cloud or drop the whole way from Sioux Falls,” I noted, to which he replied, “That is the way it should be for a first trip.”
Godspeed, Dick, and thank you for taking a chance on me at Reading in 1978.