All of aviation suffered a loss with his passing. His always positive attitude and helpful nature made him a great friend to many at AOPA and around the general aviation industry. He made friends wherever he went and was known at airshows for his floppy hat, sunburned nose, a lumpy photographer’s vest, and a big camera hanging diagonally across his chest. The camera was his window to the world and he used it to share remarkable imagery with pilots everywhere through magazine pages and websites at AOPA.
Because we here at AOPA and especially in our Media team like to think of ourselves as all one big family—warts and all—it is especially hard hitting in that Mike’s wife Janette also works at AOPA. In fact, they met here at AOPA when Janette Prince was working in the Communications Division. They were very discrete in their relationship, before finally marrying in 1999. They have three children, Jennifer, Matthew, and Bridget. Janette continues to work in AOPA’s Pilot Information Center.
Mike was my first hire after I became editor in chief in 1994. I was in need of a managing editor and had met Mike a year earlier when he was editor of The Southern Aviator, a regional aviation tabloid he had co-founded in the Raleigh, North Carolina, area. He had previously worked as a photographer, photo editor, and editor for several newspapers. He had a degree in photojournalism from Western Kentucky University.
After our one meeting, I knew he would be perfect for the job and didn’t even advertise the position or interview anyone else. With his strong aviation background, he hit the ground running as managing editor and over the years was promoted to executive editor, with responsibilities including the editorial direction for Flight Training magazine and our email newsletters. He most recently served as technical editor and director of business operations.
In addition to his amazing skills as a technical editor—catching more errors in my copy than I would care to admit, he was an all-around utility player. I knew I could toss any assignment Mike’s way and he would find a way to bring back a terrific story—almost always with a human angle to it. He loved writing about the people in aviation. The stories were accompanied by his own photos of those people, helping to bring their stories to life.
But being an excellent writer, editor, and photographer was not enough for Mike. He wanted to explore all types of media and was a pioneer in audio storytelling in the early 2000s, using his own time to study audio techniques. When online video became mainstream, he turned his attention to that, learning video and video editing techniques. To further expand his photo and video toolbox, he earned a remote pilot certificate so he could use drones in his work—this in addition to his private pilot certificate and instrument rating.
But photography was his true love. He taught himself black-and-white photography darkroom skills while in junior high school and, as an adult, looked for new and unique ways to photograph the world. In addition to his work at AOPA, he for years provided a monthly air-to-ground image from a helicopter for a local lifestyle publication, Frederick Magazine. To help others and share his experiences, he volunteered to be on the board of the International Society of Aviation Photographers, a role he had since 2012. He was also a board member of the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar Board in the 1980s and a photography contest chairman there for some two decades. He served as an adjunct professor of photojournalism at Kent State University.
One of his most daunting assignments for AOPA was coverage of an around-the-world trip by Mike Laver in his Mitsubishi MU–2 in 2013. In addition to photographing the 25-day trip with Laver, Mike blogged along the way and later produced numerous stories for our various media channels. I have a vivid memory of Janette waiting on the AOPA ramp as the two taxied in after the long journey, anxious to have him safely home again.
He has written many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of stories for AOPA over the years—online and in print. They covered the gamut from a water-bombing DC–10 and Beech Starship to kitbuilts, warbirds, and business jets. He was fascinated by technology and that, combined with this technical mind, made him an excellent candidate to take on coverage of ADS-B. He became our expert on the subject—in fact, an industry-known expert—writing dozens of articles over the years and presenting at many conferences and airshows about the emerging mandate that required aircraft to be equipped with the gear by January 2020. Undoubtedly, thousands of GA pilots learned about the technology and made purchase decisions based on his coverage of the related equipment.
He also had a great business acumen, thus his title of director of business operations. Among his responsibilities was growing AOPA’s then fledgling set of email newsletters and helping AOPA launch its magazine digital editions more than a decade ago after an exhaustive publishing industry review of best practices. He also was our primary liaison with our printer and paper merchant. Printer reps and paper merchants knew that if Mike was across the table from them during a negotiation that he was going to be fair, but that also there would not be any money left on the table. He was going to get the best deal for AOPA—and he always did. If you’ve held a copy of AOPA Pilot or Flight Training magazine in your hands over the past 29 years or flipped through one of our digital editions, you’ve benefited from the work of Mike.
Mike was as well-rounded outside the office. In addition to adoring his family and his church, he loved to make beer. He was quick to share his various batches and was always looking for ways to make the next one more interesting.
I will miss his big laugh and the times he would stop in my doorway to update me about his latest assignment. Often before I would leave the office at the end of the day, I would take a walk through the division usually to find Mike still at his computer writing or editing something well into the evening, piles of magazines, article layouts, and books all but swallowing him up in his trademark cluttered office.
We featured a series of Mike’s favorite photos in the September 2020 edition of AOPA Pilot. Accompanying that layout is a quote from Mike: “Photojournalism is all about storytelling,” he said. “And aviation is full of great stories just waiting to be told.”
Over the decades, Mike has told many of those stories. There are many more to tell and sadly, none of them will be from our Mike Collins.
Our AOPA family mourns the passing of our friend and colleague.
Memorial donations are appreciated to Kentucky Steam Heritage Corp., 499 Kirkland Ave., Irvine, KY 40336; the Animal Welfare Society of Jefferson County, 23 Poor Farm Rd, Kearneysville, WV 25430; the AOPA Foundation, or the charity of your choice. If you’re able, donate blood or platelets in his honor—even one pint makes a difference.