Collins family
6 min read

What is aviation, in a word? Many writers have tried to answer that question, and the word mentioned most often is freedom. Aviation sets you free, whether it’s freedom from the ground-bound view of the world or freedom from everyday worries. That’s certainly true, but I’d like to offer another nominee, even if it’s not as poetic: connection.

Aviation weaves a fascinating and ever-growing web of connections throughout life, often in ways that become apparent only in hindsight. It connects me to places I’d never see otherwise, from small fuel stop towns to hidden gem fly-in destinations. It connects me to world history and technology through hands-on experience. More importantly, flying connects me to unique and interesting people from all walks of life.

I am more convinced every day that what our coarsened culture desperately needs is this type of connection. Not in a self-serving, LinkedIn way – or in an agenda-driven, politically tribal way – but as human beings living real, imperfect lives.

Such connections have been an unexpected but immensely satisfying benefit of Air Facts. When we relaunched almost eight years ago, there was not much of a business plan, just a gut feeling that a lot of pilots had stories to tell and lessons to learn. That’s proven to be the case in ways we never imagined, as a few recent events emphasized.

Collins family

The family of Richard Collins, together at Sporty’s to celebrate a father, grandfather, and teacher.

Two weeks ago, we hosted a memorial event at Sporty’s for Richard Collins, including most of Richard’s family. This was not a funeral, but a celebration of a life well lived. I talked to many people who had nothing in common other than a love of aviation and a deep respect for a great pilot. Meeting these people was like meeting cousins you never knew you had. A few told me Richard probably saved their lives with his writing. Even more told me how they felt a deep connection to the aviation world (and felt a little less crazy about being a pilot) by reading Air Facts, sometimes beginning 60+ years ago.

Another connection came to my inbox a few days before the event from Rob Buck, son of famed aviation author Bob Buck, and it touched me in a way that most emails don’t. Rob, who is an accomplished pilot and author in his own right, wrote me to share his memories of Richard, a close family friend. In Rob’s email, I learned that our no-business-plan online magazine idea managed to reconnect two aviation legends:

“As you know, Richard and I began to rekindle a howdy, via written word, that was a personal gift from the creation of your Air Facts Journal. A lot of interesting conversation came along… aviation, books, our observations on the flying business, and of course tidbits that were instigated through the relationship of our fathers. I… and hopefully so did he… looked forward to delving further into thoughts and ideals. Also, from the relationship between our fathers, it had a kind of family twist.”

Some connections are more public, and not always happy. When we ran an article two years ago about a fatal mid-air collision in Virginia, we hoped pilots might learn a lesson that would keep them safe; we had no idea it might provide closure for grieving family members. No fewer than six people shared their family connection to the story with comments, most of them simply heartbreaking.

You should read them all, but here is one particularly poignant example:

“… [M]y father, Henry T. McAlhaney was the co-pilot on the Convair. While I was only 6 years old at the time of his, David and the others’ death, the magnitude of the event and the havoc it brought about was not lost on me then nor is it now. I had hoped someone would parse from this tragedy a piece or two that could serve others well – I now trust your article has done exactly that.”

Here’s another comment with a similar theme, this time from the daughter of the other pilot:

“I can’t believe I came across this article after all these years and the research I’ve done online in reference to my Dad’s plane crash… I will say that I too heard this was a ‘joyride’ which is clearly false information. So thank you for writing this, because that’s one piece of the puzzle I could never understand.”

It’s worth pointing out that this article was written by a regular pilot, just one of our volunteer writers who felt comfortable enough with his fellow pilots to share a fairly personal story on Air Facts. That his story was so warmly welcomed shows again how respectful most in the aviation community are.

Not all stories elicit sad comments or bring up bad memories. After a writer admitted to an embarrassing mistake as a young line boy, reader Steve Ramsey wrote, “I drove that same tractor and filled that same fuel truck! I was the first student of yours to pass his flight check.” The comment continued on with an offer to meet again, some 40 years after the first connection at an FBO in Ohio.

TWA 707 with Leighton Collins

Bob Buck (far left) with Leighton Collins (far right) on one of their many adventures.

One more story from Rob Buck shows how aviation relationships often come full circle, sometimes decades later. Read this brief story and ask yourself whether an Aztec ever had four more accomplished pilots in it:

“Of the Collins family, I spent the most time with Leighton. Such was an extension of my father’s close friendship and sharing of aviation, with Leighton, over decades. In there Richard went from Air Facts, to his other paths. One day I do remember with Richard was Piper had loaned the then new Aztec to Air Facts. My father and I met Leighton and Richard at Trenton-Mercer County Airport… Air Facts had just moved from NYC to Princeton, NJ. Dad and I sat in the back of the Aztec, as Richard flew and Leighton rode shotgun. Where we went, I don’t recall… I was pretty young. What I do recall was, on lining up on the runway and Richard easing in those throttles, was my father catching my excitement to those Lycomings winding up, to which he added thrill with the words: ‘Hang on… this is the ride of your life!’”

That warning from Bob Buck to his son applies to all pilots. Aviation is indeed the ride of your life, and it’s not just because of the flying. I’m thrilled that Air Facts can play some small part in connecting or reconnecting the aviation family. Make sure you stop to notice once in awhile how many brothers and sisters you have in aviation.

John Zimmerman
1 reply
  1. Don Rieser
    Don Rieser says:

    Amen John. Even the local airport has very interesting people. Many have very cool interests outside of aviation. It would seem the whole freedom thing spills over into other activities.

    Thanks for doing the memorial for Richard. You can put me on the list of those that feel he probably kept me alive for my 4000 hrs of flying. In particular his writings on weather.

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