I found him standing in mud up to his shins, cussing out loud, the inglorious result of walking backward into a soggy tobacco field to get just the right angle for a shot. We had both arrived at a country intersection, the scene of a car accident. I was a volunteer for our local rescue squad and I saw this tall, skinny guy with a black beard. He had two or three Nikons slung around his neck and a ball cap turned around, intent on getting the image of the mayhem.
I knew the type. I had started as a newspaper photographer and worked at a weekly newspaper. I introduced myself to Mike Collins and we bonded at that moment. And that began a trajectory that would change us both.
This was in 1987 and I had decided to create a community news magazine for pilots: North Carolina Aviation. Mike began helping me part-time and together we began to publish the new product. He shot the first cover photo—three A-6 Intruders making a perfect December 17 flyover of the Wright Brothers National Memorial—and from then on we established our little magazine as a voice of aviation in the Southeast. The magazine grew quickly and with Mike full-time, we had combined our next title, The Virginia Aviator, with a newspaper we acquired in Georgia and launched The Southern Aviator, covering 13 states and being mailed to 60,000 pilots a month.
To do that, we had to learn everything together and Mike led the way, from cobbling together a product using hot wax and paste-up sheets to buying the very first Apple Laserwriter in North Carolina and then pioneering the first fully-paginated (created entirely on the computer) newspaper in the state. Seems simple when reduced to a paragraph, but what we did over those early years was yeoman-like in scope. Mike worked many 18-hour days with me throwing coffee cups at him. And he had to do all that while fully assimilating the necessary aviation jargon and nomenclature to be—or appear to be—an expert aviation pundit.
We began publishing the Sun ‘n Fun Today daily newspaper at Sun ‘n Fun. In those days, we would pack all our computers and schlep to Lakeland to produce the daily 64-page newspaper with a deadline at 5 p.m. Mike managed the whole sordid affair, assembling writers and photographers that became our extended family, all joined in the panicked battle of newspaper production.
Mike recruited friends to chip in. Bill Kight, a UPS pilot who had started life as a Louisville Courier-Journal photographer, took his vacation time to shoot with Mike and Paul Bertorelli, who showed up in our lives back then to become a valued mentor. Together, we all learned. And Mike was editor to some great aviation writers he cajoled to join us: Martin Caidin and Frank Kingston Smith. He brought along new talents like Deb McFarland and Jack Neubacher.
We pioneered when the digital age dawned, learning to use digital cameras Mike procured from Canon as we finally rid ourselves of the wet darkroom days. I think he probably still smells like fixer, the vinegar-like bath we used in the darkroom for prints.
Mike and I flew hundreds or maybe thousands of hours together in our Skylane. We learned how to fly formation and shoot aerial photos as a team. We had a jump-plane STC to remove the door of the 182 and Mike hung out the door to capture amazing images of airplanes and iconic landscapes for our covers. He wrote the copy, edited the writers, built relationships over hundreds of customers, advertisers, subscribers, and everything else. He did it all under the influence of endless cups of black coffee and copious amounts of imported beer. We flew all over the place. We never missed a deadline. We laughed and cried and fought together like battling brothers. But together we forged a great product in a hard business.
If it ended then, he would have had a lifetime of accomplishments. But others in the industry took note of his works and in 1994 AOPA Pilot came to fish in our pond. Mike went on to manage on the great national stage that his talent and ability deserved. He had trained his replacement at The Southern Aviator well, Bill De Brauwer, who followed the template that Mike had left for us. At AOPA Pilot, he built a new series of successes and without a doubt made everyone’s life there easier because of his tenacity, dedication, smarts, and instincts. For legions of faithful AOPA members, it meant a tight editorial style that marked the publication with his imprint.
Our paths diverged naturally, but we always stayed in touch by email and phone and he visited us recently in Clayton. We had been through a cauldron of fire together. I imagine that the many people he came to know don’t have a clue about the forging he underwent to become an aviation media icon. He did not bother to dwell on his exploits, but my stories about Mike would take some time to tell, from us flying through terrible convective storms over Cuba to our many nocturnal flights home from distant locales for editorial and advertising days on the road. I would be happy to tell those stories over some sort of exotic beer that he alone could explain the intricacies of.
So, he was a titan. But he did all of those things with me long ago, all while raising his beautiful baby girl Jenny. A single father at a time when there were not many of those, a singularly dedicated, doting father. I was so glad when he found permanent happiness with his new life and love Janette and their children.
Now, with the terrible news of his passing, we learn that Covid-19 has claimed another victim. Another statistic to others, it is in our community of old friends anything but a statistic. It is the tearing away from life a man we all knew as a vibrant force who laughed and worked and helped others. And would not hesitate to call bullshit when he saw it.
Mike’s passing should remind us that this is a time of peril for us all still. It is maddening to think that despite all efforts to avoid this virus that it found and devoured Mike. It is maddening that he endured weeks of being so sick as a result of our full failure to come together to beat down this plague.
As we are left without our friend, father, lover, instructor, pal, buddy, I beseech you to stop and think about the other people in your own life that you cherish and realize we are at a moment when any or all of us can suddenly be taken away by this insidious, invisible killer.
Recommit to keeping your masks on and your guard up for these next crucial months. It is not over. In Mike’s memory, don’t act like it is.
See ya, Bubba.
Editor’s note: I was honored to be at the intersection of that long friendship between Todd and Mike. It formed for me one of the most durable friendships of my life that endures yet today. Todd now operates AircraftMerchants, a sales and brokerage services business. He lives in Clayton, North Carolina.