Steve Collins can’t quite explain it. He’s flown a lot of airplanes through the years, but says he still finds something altogether different about an old biplane.
“There’s just something magic about flying an open cockpit biplane,” he said. “There’s something about an old biplane that gets it right.”
He just isn’t sure what the difference is. Maybe it’s feeling the wind in your face, he said. Maybe it’s the panoramic view when there’s no roof above the cockpit to block your view of the sky. Maybe it’s moving slowly through the air in an historic airplane with ground rolling past just a few hundred feet below.
“To me, more than any airplane I’ve ever flown, a biplane captures the essence [of flying],” he said. “You can cross the country in an old biplane. You’re down low and you go slow and you can really see things.”
Collins has been taken with flying since he was in college at the University of Florida back in the 1960s. “I literally bought an airplane before I had a license [to fly it], before I had furniture in my house,” he said. “It’s a sickness.”
In college, he thought about trying to become a pilot for the U.S. Navy, “but I’m 6 feet 5 ½ inches tall … I was too big in every dimension” to be a military pilot.
So he went into insurance. No kidding. He sold dental policies. And he says he sees no disconnect moving back and forth between the careful, risk-averse work of insurance and the risky world of flying.
“I see it as entirely logical. When I’m burned out on the insurance business, I can get into the biplane,” he said on a recent afternoon in his office at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, also known as PDK. “It’s a perfect balancing act for me. Having two things that are so different makes life more interesting. Does that make sense? I like the polarity of the two.”
Besides, flying is more than just a hobby. “If you’re into aviation like I’m into aviation, it’s a way of life,” he said. “All of my friends are pilots. You rarely meet a pilot who isn’t a pretty good fellow or gal. … It’s not just the airplanes, it’s the people. It’s the lifestyle and it’s the shared passion.”
Eventually, his airplanes turned into a business. He used to take people for rides in his old Stearman biplane just to make enough money to cover the cost of keeping it going.
After he moved to metro Atlanta, he started Biplane Rides Over Atlanta Inc., a company that offers sightseeing rides from PDK. He switched a few years ago to flying Waco biplanes, which are newly built versions of old planes, because they offered room for two passengers, he said. Then he started a similar company in Maine to offer sightseeing flights over a national park. He figures his businesses by now have taken 10,000 or more people for biplane rides.
“I never sat down and said, ‘OK, I’ll be in the biplane tour business.’ It just sort of morphed,” he said. “I was sort of like the lobster you put in the pot. You turn the water on and before you know it, you’re cooked.”
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