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Aviation journalist extraordinaire Richard L. Collins has passed away. Covering general aviation for more than 60 years, it’s fair to say that while Collins might not have invented modern aviation journalism, he surely perfected it.
I worked with Dick for years when we were both at Flying magazine—Dick was on his second stint there—and I had the remarkable fortune to be able to spend a lot of time with him at air shows and on the phone going over stories but more often than not just talking about flying. And I was lucky enough to fly with him in his P-210 on a number of occasions. Yes, he flew as good as he wrote about flying, and he gave dozens of young and not so young people a chance to fly with him.
When he took over at Flying decades before I got there in 1995, he had somehow reworked an already great publication into one that went far beyond that, perfectly encapsulating the world of general aviation. In that endeavor he’s perhaps best remembered for prolifically dispensing his aviation insights based not on theory but on actual experience flying hundreds of hours a year in real IFR in piston singles. Dick had the knack, and this was perhaps his greatest gift, of noticing important things about our everyday flying that somehow either never occurred to us or escaped our ability to put it into words. These weren't esoteric commentaries, either, but plainly stated commentary on aviating that allowed his pilot-readers over and over again to see our flying in new ways, ones that made us safer and better pilots in a hundred ways both large and small.
But his contributions to aviation journalism extend so much further than that. As an editor in chief and brand leader he was brilliant and in two different eras guided the two biggest brands in general aviation publications, Flying and AOPA Pilot, to their lofty positions, shepherding the creation of brands with great, topical and useful writing and the best photography in the business.
Dick was a direct person and communicator. He wasn't the least bit flashy; he was outspoken and plain spoken, though he always laced his commentary with a helping of Southern charm and a wry wit that was never far below the surface. Yet he was somehow an uncanny judge of creative talent, a leader who hired and employed some of the most brilliant aviation writers and artists to ever ply the trade, many of whom are major players in the game today, and many of whom, I should add, are close friends—so thanks for that, too, Dick.
And while he was an established expert and generally conservative in his approach, he was never afraid of controversy or okaying a cool story, be it a cross country race between super cars and super planes, a MPG test of light planes during the height of the gas crisis, or a bold look at whether or not twins were really safer than singles. Nor was he cowed by orthodoxy, and he consequently changed the way the aviation world looked at a number of key topics, from autopilots to single-pilot jets to pressurized piston singles, and he weighed in, often with a skeptical eye, on the introduction of everything from composite airframes to area navigation.
In addition to his magazine work, over the years Dick wrote more than 40 books, appeared in hundreds of instructional videos with his longtime partners and friends at Sporty's Pilot Shop, and appeared on primetime TV in the late 1960s, teaching a famous host, Hugh Downs, how to fly. Aviation and family were Dick's lifetime loves, and he was fiercely though quietly proud of the former and unabashedly proud of the latter.
Dick started his career in aviation journalism working on the magazine his father, Leighton Collins, founded, a great little book called Air Facts, and ended his career writing up until the very last weeks of his life for a modern online version of that same title and writing with the same authoritative voice of reasoned, informed enthusiasm for flying light planes that he’d embodied for sixty years and continued to do so until his very last printed words.
So the next time you go flying, rock a wing for Dick Collins and all he did to help make the activity we love a better, safer and richer one for all of us and, hopefully, for generations of pilots to come.