I was distressed to learn today of the passing of a legend- prolific test pilot Peter James Collins, formerly of the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force, died this August, 2016.
Collins lived the epitome of a fast jet pilots life- fighter pilot, flight demonstration pilot, test pilot, and contract aviation consultant. His service record was noteworthy in in its own right. But it was his contributions to field of test flying that made him famous in the aviation community. He continued his pursuit advancing aviation through flying and writing until his unexpected death this month.
Peter Collins joined the UK’s armed forces in 1975. While serving in the Royal Air Force, Collins was assigned to a Harrier GR.3 squadron in Germany. The Gr.3 operated in the ground attack and reconnaissance role. The unit’s mission was to provide responsive tactical support to NATO forces against Warsaw Pact armies.
During his assignment in Germany, the military Junta in Argentina directed the Argentine armed forces to invade and hold the Falkland Islands. Collins’ tour in Deutschland was cut short and he was given orders to report to the Royal Navy for conversion to the Sea Harrier FRS.1, in time to sail aboard the carrier HMS Illustrious to the contested South Atlantic.
He flew Sea Harriers with the decorated 809NAS (Naval Air Squadron) during the UK’s operations to reclaim and hold the Falklands following Argentina’s capitulation.
Collins returned to the RAF- now as an instructor, teaching Tactics and Weapon techniques to advanced students at the RAF Tactical Weapons Unit. This prestigious posting lead him to another- that of a pilot for the RAF’s Red Arrows flight demonstration team. This in turn gave him the opportunity to propel his career even further- to the world of test flying.
Collins was accepted to the Empire Test Pilot School and graduated in 1989. At RAF Boscombe Down, the UK’s primary test and evaluation flight center, he had the opportunity to participate in numerous aircraft development programs.
Peter Collins chose to leave the RAF in 1993, opting for the flexibility of a civilian flight test career. He lent his experience to several major aerospace manufacturers over the last decades of his life. Some of the aircraft he contributed to were the Fokker F70 and F100, Mirage 2000, Panavia Tornado, Dassault Rafale, Dassault Falcon jet series, Pilatus PC-12 and PC-21, Aeromacchi M346, Saab Gripen, Eurofighter Typhoon, and Lockheed-Martin F-16 He eventually rose to the position of Chief Test Pilot for Raytheon UK. With that company, he was responsible for delivery of the Sentinel R.1 and Shadow UAS projects. Both of those aircraft now fly with the Royal Air Force as part of the counter-ISIS Coalition air campaign.
Over the course of his life, he flew over 10,000 hours in 119 different aircraft types. In an era of diminishing budgets and risk averse contractors, that number is noteworthy. It wasn’t just that he flew so many, it’s significant that he test flew so many of those designs. It is unlikely that records such as his will ever be broken or matched.
I never had the opportunity to meet him in person. However, he and I did converse online about our shared interests in military aviation history, flight test, and opportunities within the industry. Mr. Collins offered advice about my career in aerospace, and answered every question I posed about his own. I took to heart his mentoring, as brief as it was. He was pragmatic in his suggestions and simultaneously encouraging. I regret that I didn’t have the foresight to be more proactive in my correspondence. But I am thankful for the brief chance to speak with a legend.
Clear Skies, sir.
(All photos were retrieved from the public domain via Mr. Collins’ personal Twitter account)