Richard Collins: Setting the Standard

2024
Photo courtesy of John Zimmerman

Contributor Thomas P. Turner reviews the career of a pilot and writer whose words influenced generations of aviation enthusiasts

Richard L. Collins changed the face and style of aviation reporting. He passed away in late April, leaving an industry significantly changed and improved as a result of his writing. What made Collins different was not only that he wrote about the technical aspects of aircraft, he also made extensive use of light aircraft for personal transportation himself, and added what he learned on every flight to his educational narrative. In essence, his readers were invited along on the flights Collins took and learned from that hands-on experience. Collins may not have been the first, but he certainly popularised this experienced-based approach to aviation writing. He was not afraid to point out his own mistakes either, to ‘bare my aeronautical soul’ as he put it, if he thought other pilots could learn from his experience. 

Flight instructor

Richard earned his flight instructor credentials in 1953 when he was 19 years old. He maintained his instructor privileges until retiring in 2018. Among countless students, he trained 1960s American Broadcasting Company (ABS) newscaster Hugh Downs, with the lessons filmed and aired on U.S. national television. About a month before his death Collins wrote:

‘Flight instructing was a big part of my flying life from the day I got my instructor’s rating in 1953 until I became a member of the United States army in November 1955. Then it picked back up in 1956 when I was attached to an army flying club. After I got out of the army in 1957, I was a corporate pilot for a while and then, in 1958, I started out in the magazine business and was no longer an active flight instructor … I logged 1390 hours and 45 minutes of dual [instruction] given … my active instruction was done mostly in a relatively limited period of time and without great financial reward. In the magazine business I did a lot of informal instructing because when staffers would go with me on assignments, I would let them fly and try to teach them how to really use an airplane.’

Arguably, however, it was when Collins began ‘the magazine business’ that he truly began to teach people to fly.

Writer and editor

Son of Leighton Collins, founder of Air Facts magazine, Collins began writing for Air Facts in 1958, then joined the staff of Flying magazine in 1968 and became editor in chief in 1977. He moved to AOPA Pilot magazine as publisher and editor in 1988. In 1993, he returned to Flying as an editor at large, where he wrote a monthly column and many feature articles. In October 2008, Collins retired as a regular contributor to Flying magazine. At the time of his retirement, Collins had been on the masthead of an aviation magazine since July 1958. Collins became a writer for the revived Air Facts Journal, now an online journal, from its creation in 2011 until his death earlier this year.

Richard Collins is extremely well known for his lifelong efforts as an aviation author and advocate. His 40 books and pamphlets, thousands of articles, and dozens of instructional videos set the standard for modern aviation safety education and training. Collins’ book credits include:

  • Flying IFR
  • Flying the Weather Map
  • Flight Level Flying
  • Instrument Flying Refresher
  • Air Crashes
  • Mastering the Systems: Air Traffic Control and Weather
  • The Perfect Flight
  • Tips to Fly by
  • Thunderstorms and Airplanes
  • Flying Safely
  • Pilot Upgrade: How to Stay Current in Safety
  • Logbooks: Life in Aviation
  • The Next Hour: The Most Important Hour in Your Logbook

Collins continued to write insightful observations and inspired tips for flying safely and efficiently in his Air Facts blog to within weeks of his death.

Controversy

Collins’ career was not without controversary. He ‘called it as he saw it’ and wrote several articles with titles such as ‘What’s Wrong with Bonanza Pilots?’ and similar, the content of which was unpopular among certain groups—probably because Collins’ words were painfully truthful. Two specific issues caused widespread controversary and, to some, cloud his reputation. These were:

Letting his instructor certificate lapse: ‘I last renewed my CFI in 2016 and will let it lapse today (2/28/2018),’ Collins wrote in his Air Facts blog. (U.S. flight instructor certificates must be renewed every two years). Collins’ concern was primarily over the lack of additional training requirements and guidance for pilots of technologically advanced aeroplanes, specifically concerning knowledge and operation of autopilots and automation failure modes. He saw information in the FAA-approved Flight Instructor Refresher curriculum that in his opinion downplays and short-cuts what’s needed to master cockpit automation. ‘It takes a lot more good instruction than folks are currently getting,’ he warned.

Scrapping his Cessna P210: Collins stunned the aviation establishment and his multitude of readers when in 2007 he chose to scrap the 1979 Cessna P210 he had purchased new (licensed as N90RC) and in which he had logged nearly 9000 hours. He was already scaling back significantly on his flying and likely sensed he was going to stop completely fairly soon. As he explained in Flying magazine, his decision to destroy the aeroplane rather than sell it were personal. The highly complex, pressurised single ‘had become difficult to keep serviceable, mostly due to lack of parts’. He had ‘not had a good experience’ with reconditioned parts and new parts from Cessna were often no longer available. Several costly issues, including rework of the aeroplane’s deicing boots system, were on the horizon. Although certificated under the FAA’s old CAR 3 rules and therefore with no required airframe life limit, Collins cited Cessna engineers as stating the P210’s airframe was ‘tested to the equivalent of 10,000 flight hours’, a value Collins’ aeroplane was fast approaching.

Collins was very concerned about legal liability should he sell the aeroplane. He called it a ‘complicated and temperamental design’ and noted the type had ‘the worst fatal accident rate of any certified piston single’. He was afraid that an inexperienced pilot would buy N90RC, which was well known to have been in his care since new and literally had his initials on it, and have a crash. At times Collins stated that he chose to have the aeroplane destroyed because it ‘was not worth much’ and he ‘could not get any offers on it’. At other times, however, he openly expressed concern about being held legally responsible should a new owner have a mechanical issue that led to an accident. Ultimately, he chose to have his beloved P210 destroyed rather than sell it to a new owner.

Retirement

Bucking general aviation convention, Collins grounded himself while he was still going strong as a pilot. He stopped flying as pilot-in-command in 2011. He was still able to pass medical qualification, as he wrote in The Next Hour, and could easily ‘go out and fly six approaches, do some navigating and fly holding patterns’, meeting U.S. requirements to fly under instrument flight rules. He chose not to, however, writing: ‘I didn’t fly enough over the last year of flying to feel really comfortable with IFR flying. The last IFR in IMC trip that I flew went well and that is the way I wanted to leave it.’ He wanted to ‘go out on top’, as he put it.

Collins had no interest in visual, recreational flying—if he wasn’t meeting the challenges of flying single-pilot IFR he did not want to fly at all. In his words:

‘One reason for me to stop with satisfaction was that limiting flights to good weather took all the challenge and fun out of my flying. To me, dealing with inclement weather in light airplanes is one of the most interesting things that a pilot can do. If not done correctly it can be lethal but done correctly it is fascinating and rewarding. Poking around the innards of a weather system will teach you things about weather that you simply can’t learn anywhere else.’

‘The downside to weather flying is that it is something that has to be done on a regular basis if the knowledge and proficiency to minimize risk is to be maintained. In my busiest years working for Flying (magazine), I flew 500–600 hours a year. That was for about seven years. Then I dropped below 500 a year but stayed above 300 for a long time. That was all good but when I dropped below 100 hours a year I lost the feeling that I was immersed in weather flying and that was the spell that flying had on me. Doing battle with the elements did the same thing for me that aerobatic flying does for some pilots, or that just flying around on pretty days does for others.’

‘Another consideration,’ Collins wrote, ‘was my father’s experience. He flew a few months past his 75th birthday … One day, after landing, he inadvertently retracted the landing gear. I didn’t want to end that way, so I thought I would stop flying a few months earlier than he did.’ He summed up his decision:

‘I was always interested in how I became more conservative the longer I flew. Except for perhaps the first year or so, I never did reckless or foolish things in airplanes. From age 40 to 50 I flew a lot, my weather knowledge was at its peak, and flying was something that I did easily and naturally. As I morphed into my 60s and 70s, I didn’t fly as much and could feel things slipping slowly away. The last time I thought through this I was interested in the fact that younger pilots have more to lose but older pilots, who have less time left to lose, tend to be more conservative. In my case, though, it was the lower level of activity that caused me to back off.’

Always a risk manager, Richard Collins summed up his personal risk and decided it was time to leave the flying to others.

It’s said that learning comes in two forms: experience and training. Experience is learning from what happens to us. Training is learning from the experiences of others. We’ve all benefited greatly from the training Richard Collins prolifically imparted for six decades. We will miss his tutelage, but will all continue to learn from other pilot-authors who have picked up the mantle of experience-based aviation journalism and instruction that Collins pioneered.

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