Early local pilot Collins is subject of WWI book
“Tales of an Old Air-Faring Man: A Half Century of Incidents, Accidents and Providence: The Reminiscences of Paul F. Collins” is the latest in a series of books issued by the Portage County Historical Society for the 100th anniversary of World War I.
Collins was an airplane pioneer who grew up in Stevens Point. Born in 1891 in Wooster, Ohio, he came to Stevens Point when his father was hired as one of the original faculty members at Stevens Point Normal School, now the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP), in 1896. The Joseph V. Collins Classroom Center on the UWSP campus is named after his father.
Paul Collins graduated from the Normal School and served as the principal of the school in Junction City during the 1910-11 school year. He said his fuse for aviation was lit in 1904 when he and his father attended the St. Louis World’s Fair, and he was allowed to ride in a hot air balloon that was tethered to the ground and rose to a height of 300 feet.
His interest in flight was further fueled in 1910, when an aviator came to Stevens Point to perform at the county fair at Goerke Park, taking off, flying around the grounds and landing on the half-mile race track.
After the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Collins joined the Signal Corps, the aviation arm of the military, and learned to pilot a plane. After training in Texas, he was sent to New York and then to France where he trained pilots until the war ended.
When he returned to the U.S., he remained in aviation and got into barnstorming, serving as an assistant director on the first real aviation full-length feature film, “Flying Pat” produced by D.W. Griffith in 1920 and working for Curtiss Flying Services.
He joined the U.S. Air Mail Service in 1921, and the book relates stories about the early days of flying, landing in fields and other places in bad weather, the introduction of instrument panels in the cockpit. By the time he took his last flight with the Air Mail Service Aug. 31, 1927, he had flown 3,61,689 miles in 3,587 hours, mostly between New York and Cleveland, Ohio.
He was a pilot for National Air Transport from August 1927 until April 1929, then became general superintendent of Transcontinental Air Transport, which became Trans World Airlines (TWA), through the end of that year and vice president of Ludington Airlines providing the first shuttle service between Washington, D.C., and New York from 1930 to 1933.
Collins was involved with passenger airlines from their infancy. In 1933, he and three other friends, including aviatrix Amelia Earhart, formed Northeast Airlines, and Collins served as president from 1933 until 1941, chairman of the board from 1941 to 1943 and president again from 1943 to 1947.
Collins was a pioneer of flying, not from its earliest days, but during its developmental period. He witnessed the first instruments and gauges added to the cockpit and the technical advances that increased safety.
He devotes a chapter of the book to Earhart’s final flight, which he was involved in planning. He was also present when she called her husband from India and said she was having “personnel trouble.”
Referring to Earhart’s final radio contact with a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter, Collins said she reported she was low on gas and searching for her planned destination of Howland Island, which she suspected was near because of the plane’s gas consumption.
Her attempt to fly around the world was typical of aviators in that day, Collins said, because so little was known of what to expect, there was little or no opportunity to build hypothetical models and “the only way to determine whether or not a particular flight was possible was to try it.”
He also discounts rumors that she was spying on the Japanese at Truk Island, saying the island was beyond the range of the Lockheed Electra she was flying and would have exhausted the fuel, leaving her no way to reach Howland. That route was never mentioned in planning, and pilots on such a flight had to have meticulous plans, he said.
Experienced flyers understand the difficulty of spotting a small island, Collins said, especially when looking into the morning sun and facing the stress of fuel exhaustion and the fatigue of an all-night flight, adding that she likely ditched in the ocean.
At the start of World War II, Collins was too old for military service, but he worked to develop airports and landing strips in Greenland, Labrador and Iceland, thereby creating a North Atlantic airplane service from Presque Isle, Maine, to Prestwick, Scotland, that was used during the war to carry passengers, mail and cargo safely to North Atlantic bases.
The Collins book is available from the Historical Society for $10 by calling 715-600-4930 and leaving a message.