What I learned from Richard Collins

One year ago, aviation lost a legend. Richard Collins was a pilot first and foremost, but he was also a writer, editor, mentor, and advocate. He changed – and in many ways defined – general aviation in the second half of the 20th century. While there haven’t been any new articles to enjoy over the last year, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still lessons to be learned. Richard left behind such a huge volume of writing over his 60+ year career that pilots will find rich rewards from re-reading his work.

In the year since his death, I’ve read a lot of his books and articles and I’ve also flown many flights where I could hear Richard’s voice in my head. In general, the lessons he reminds me of seem to center around four main ideas: building margins, managing weather, respecting technology, and flying for transportation.

Margins

Richard never wrote down a formal philosophy of flying, probably because he believed that kind of talk was nothing but hot air. But in re-reading many of his articles, one theme keeps coming up: risk management for the real world. While he didn’t use the jargon so beloved by the FAA these days, he took a very pragmatic approach to risk. He assumed that pilots would make mistakes, weather forecasts would be wrong, and equipment would fail. To him, the only answer was to build in margins.

Richard L. Collins
Most of Richard Collins’s writing focused on risk management, although he rarely used that phrase.

That applies to almost all aspects of flying, including fuel, weather, weight and balance, performance, and pilot skill. For example, if the weather is 500 and 1 in moderate rain and the runway is short, that doesn’t necessarily mean the flight has to be cancelled. Richard would advise us to build in some safety margins, perhaps by taking extra fuel, having a solid gold alternate, landing during daylight hours, or brushing up on our short field technique.

There are two skills to practice here: building in extra margins during preflight planning, and then monitoring those margins during flight. If they ever get too thin, it’s time to abandon Plan A and head for safety.

The benefit of this approach, as opposed to robotic risk formulas or simplistic mnemonics, is that it leaves room for judgment and flexibility. It can’t be simplified into an equation, but that’s why the left seat is still occupied by a human. That flexibility and human creativity, for better and for worse, is what defines general aviation flying.

Weather

If risk management was Richard’s big idea, weather was where that idea was most often put into practice. He was a weather geek and proud of it, but he never claimed to be a meteorologist. The focus for him was always on how weather was experienced from the cockpit of a light airplane, which led directly to Collins’s first rule of weather flying: what you see is what you get. It sounds simple, almost obvious, but when it’s taken to heart it changes the way you fly. We have to react to the view out the front window, not what the TAF promised three hours ago. If it looks bad, it is bad, and it’s not up to ATC or datalink radar to make the right decision.

That doesn’t mean forecasts and weather reports should be ignored. Far from it – Richard was a believer in always knowing the big picture when it came to weather, going beyond a METAR to really understand what was going on in the atmosphere. Is there going to be icing at 8,000 feet today? Richard would first ask us where the lows are and where the cold fronts are. Then he’d want to hear about the 500mb analysis chart. This seems tedious at first, but I believe it’s the key to handling weather safely without panicking about it.

One of his other weather rules was that “nobody gets trapped by weather. There are always signs.” I take that as a challenge more than an established fact, but it’s one we should embrace. From reading weather charts to reading the clouds, there are plenty of places to find clues as to what Mother Nature is doing. We just have to stay curious.

Technology

Pilot in G1000 cockpit
Is a glass cockpit unsafe? Hardly. It’s just a tool, as Collins often reminded us.

Many readers would call Richard “old school,” but I always admired his approach to technology because he carefully straddled the line between the tech boosters and the Luddites. Even well into his 70s, he embraced new technology, flying glass cockpit airplanes and geeking out on datalink weather systems. He knew progress when he saw it, and often quipped, “May the good old days never return.”

And yet Richard was never a slave to technology. Famously suspicious of autopilots, he argued forcefully that the human in the left seat must be pilot in command at all times, whether George was flying or not. I would love to read the article he might write on the Boeing 737 MAX controversy; I suspect he would have some ideas for improving the MCAS system but would also recommend some serious changes to pilot training.

This balanced approach is a model for how modern pilots should handle the endless debate about technology vs. pilot skills. Instead of viewing this as an either/or choice, we should use technology any place it can improve safety, but never give up our central decision-making role.

Transportation flying

One final lesson might be the one we forget most often: light airplanes can be used for serious transportation. For Richard, this was what flying was all about. He had nothing against gliders or sunset flights in tailwheel airplanes, but for him that was not the real joy of being a pilot. “Running the traps,” as he called it, meant going where you wanted, when you wanted – and getting the job done. Single-pilot IFR was the best, often challenging and yet immensely rewarding.

Once again he practiced what he preached here, flying all over the country in all kinds of weather – usually in a single-engine Cessna. He was never a show-off or a cowboy, but he proved that ordinary pilots can beat the airlines on a lot of trips if they are serious about staying sharp. This doesn’t mean we should blast off into severe thunderstorms just to stay on schedule, but it does challenge us to be our best and not cancel on a forecast.

Here’s a bonus Collins tip for all the writers out there: never, ever miss a deadline. Richard was serious about turning in your article on time, whether you were the intern or the editor in chief. After all, if the boss doesn’t respect a deadline, why should the new guy? Just another example of a confidently humble man who liked to walk the walk.

12 Comments

  • Never met Mr. Collins. First came across him in college (early ’70s); always found his writing eminently sensible even though our chosen paths for ‘aviation gratification’ differed considerably. He flew for business in single-engine GA, me ‘for fun’ in an engineless sailplane. Both of us thus ‘enjoyed cross-country planning and flight.’

    Despite ‘playing’ in wildly differing parts of aviation’s ‘sky pool,’ I’ll argue Mr. Collins’ apparent philosophical approach to flight – as well-summarized above by John Z. – will serve EVERY pilot well, and in its own way it served me well. To mention just one area of ‘applicable overlap,’ we both routinely accepted/safely-managed off-airport landing risks…in Mr. Collins’s case, solid ground-up IMC en-route – a condition arguably different from having a ‘solid gold alternate’ at the far end of the flight – and I’ve no doubt he understood his accepted risks and always had some sort of Plan B/C/D in mind throughout every flight. In my case, ‘been there, done that’ in terms of damage-free, off-airport, landings.

    It’s GOOD to have ‘comprehensive’ understanding of one’s in-flight risks…and to always plan and fly accordingly!

  • Very good summary of Richard’s philosophy. You captured the core points he was trying to instill in all pilots. His books and articles tell it like it is from a practical point and the education in weather and risk management are some of the best sources of flying knowledge to build on in your piloting endeavors. Every pilot, student to veteran big iron captain, should read and learn from his writings, because even though they are from a GA perspective, they apply to everyone in several ways.

  • John, great explanation of Mr. Collins philosophy of flying and maintaining flying proficiency. I followed his articles in Flying Magazine and have two of his videos.
    His experience in flight and particularly his common sense of when to stay on the ground is something any pilot, student or experienced should read. The two videos I have, “Practical Airmanship” and “Staying Ahead of the Airplane”, are like expert instruction in how to determine to conduct a flight, and what to do once you are in the air. A pilot should always be involved with flying the airplane and monitoring what the airplane is doing. The autopilot can be a departure from this and deadly if not used properly. As Dick said, if all else fails, pull the AP cercuit breaker. Anyway, I was sad when I heard that he had passed away. Your right, he wasn’t arrogant or proud. He just wanted pilots to do it right and enjoy the priveledge of flying.

  • I am Swiss citizen but spent 5 years in the US. between 1980 and 1985 where I earned my Commercial License and Instrument and Flight Instructor ratings before returning to Switzerland to become an Airline pilot with a local company. During my stay, I once read a statement from Mr. Collins which remains as a testimony to his deep reaching wisdom and etched itself into my memory like a kind of 1st Command of Aviation. I believe he was commenting about an airline crash and said (not the exact wording but its spirit): no matter whether you have 500 or 20’000 hrs in your logbook, there is a single important one: the one you are flying right now, because if you screw up badly enough, this is the one that has the potential to put an end to your pilot career.

  • I never met him personally, however I read many of his articles that kept me safe, specially in my early years of flying (70´s & 80´s) . Great mentor. Thanks from a Mexican fan. I´ll miss him.

  • Hopefully the anniversary of Richard’s passing will motivate GA pilots to polish their IFR skills and get out there in the IFR system. In recent years we hear relatively few single engine single pilot ATC calls during our annual Midwest to Northeast trip(s). One other key item an instrument pilot needs is a supportive spouse. Ideally one that encourages & participates in IFR activities. Such a spouse makes all the difference.

  • To be honest with you, I don’t remember what all I learned from Richard Collins. I was fourteen years old when I started reading his column in Flying magazine, and that was long time ago. However, right now I could probably sum all the knowledge I absorbed from him into one sentence though: “Flying is a serious endeavor.” I’ve tried to approach every flight with that attitude. Even when I’m doing something stupid I approach it seriously.

  • As Patrick Bradley wrote on these Air Facts pages last year in “Learning from the Master,” some time ago Richard and Patrick rode airline cockpit jumpseats to the high arctic for a Flying Magazine story. Richard did not know at the time, but on the evening prior to their departure the airline’s director of flight operations wanted to cancel their trip and reschedule it for another day. It seems that their flight to Resolute Bay was planned to operate with a B737 flown by a handpicked, congenial and welcoming crew. However as often happens, an equipment-change occurred and the B737 was replaced with a B727 with a crew known for its reluctance to share their flight deck with jumpseat riders.

    The airline was hoping to make a good impression on Richard while demonstrating the uniqueness of their northern operation. The B737 pilots were chosen to not only operate the flight but also to be knowledgeable goodwill ambassadors for the company and indirectly contribute to a favourable magazine article. The lastminute aircraft/crew swap threw weeks of planning out the window. Nobody knew how Richard would be received on the B727 flight deck.

    Richard’s trip went ahead as scheduled with management pilots at home anxiously hoping for the best. Fortunately, all the worry was for naught. Richard charmed the crew. His reputation had proceeded him by way of magazine articles in airline crew rooms across the country. He was welcomed into the cockpit and four flights came and went. The discussions were so interesting and enjoyable with all participants fully engaged, there was barely enough time for the pilots to fly the airplane. Just a bunch of guys sitting around and talking about flying.

    I did not learn anything from Richard that day but I did learn about Richard himself, the man I had known my entire flying career through his writings. I am very pleased to have had the opportunity.

  • Thank you, John.
    I’ve read just “The next hour”, a great practical book by Richard. Now I know he’s got much broader legacy.

  • John, thank you for the memories of Richard and the excellent summary of his approach to flying. He has made a huge impact on my approach to flying. These days that is about safely flying rescue dogs 12 months of the year in the midwest. His lessons are being well used.

  • Of the many things I’ve taken away from Richard’s writing, the one thing that stands out more than any other was his recommendation of “Stick and Rudder”. As a student pilot approaching 60 years of age (!), with some – let’s just use the word ‘interesting’ – experiences with a variety of in flight situations, picking up the book Stick and Rudder was like adjusting the focus on a camera after looking through it out of focus for too long. I’ve since bought and given away at least 5 copies. If you have not read it, you owe it to yourself to do so. Richard, if your listening, keep the blue side up.

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