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Test Pilot

by Jimmy Collins

He never was as famous as Doolittle, the other test pilot Jimmy, or as well-known as the flashy air racers of the 1930s, the Roscoe Turners and Speed Holmans. Just a working stiff who got by while hopping from job to job, he instructed, flew charters, worked as what would today be called an FAA inspector, flew for wealthy private-plane owners, kept enlisting in and resigning from the Army Air Corps as a pursuit pilot (he and Charles Lindbergh graduated together from flight training at Kelly Field) and made extra cash by taking freelance flight-testing jobs that salaried company pilots wouldn’t touch— like maximum-G dive tests, which before computers meant it was your job to pull the wings off. Tough luck if you succeeded.

But Jimmy Collins had one talent that few other pilots boasted: He could write well enough to contribute to The Saturday Evening Post, one of the most prestigious magazines in the country, as well as the New York Daily News and the New York Post, newspapers then far more admired than are their fading 21st-century counterparts. Daily News founder Joseph Medill Patterson, one of the nation’s most important editors and publishers, wrote the foreword to Test Pilot. “Collins chose the most dangerous branch of [flying], that is, dive testing,” he noted. “He said he did it for the money, which is partly true, but I don’t think entirely so. I think he liked to pull the whiskers of death and see if he could get away with it.”

Had Collins continued to write, we might today have put him into the same category as Ernest K. Gann. He didn’t have classicist Gann’s prolixity, wasn’t drawn to wordy flights of fancy, but Collins did have the same deep understanding of piloting, of the fascination with what was then the world’s best job for those who were able to do it.

Collins could have been a braggart but wasn’t, and this book reveals that from its very first lines: “To Whom It May Concern: I am an American citizen. I was born in Warren, Ohio, on April 25, 1904.” Just as stark are its final words: “The cold but vibrant fuselage was the last thing to feel my warm and living flesh. The long loud diving roar of the motor, rising to the awful crashing crescendo of its impact with the earth was my death song. I am dead now.” In that final chapter, Collins had unknowingly written his own obituary. He had decided to quit test flying and become a full-time writer, but he had one more job on his contract: the final dive of the Grumman XF3F-1 biplane fighter prototype. Jimmy pulled its wings off on March 22, 1935, which was to be—and indeed was—his last day as a test pilot.

Test Pilot was rereleased by Kessinger Publishing as a hardcover in 2010, but it is also available at as a free download for any e-reader or computer.


Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.