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Apart from some haze along the Lake Michigan shoreline, the skies were clear and inviting that February day nearly four years ago. It was the kind of day pilots love, the kind of day Bob Collins loved. Collins could hardly wait to wrap up his four-hour morning drive radio show on WGN-AM-by far the most popular in Chicago-and get up into that sky behind the stick of his Czech-made Zlin 242. The single-propeller Zlin handled well-it was responsive.
Zlins are known for their acrobatic abilities; they are often used by stunt pilots. That wasn’t Collins’s style, however. He loved speed and movement-he collected fast cars and Harleys-yet he was a cautious flier, strictly out for the pleasure of cruising the skies above northern Illinois.
Twenty-two years after his first solo flight, in 1978, he still didn’t like to fly alone. He wouldn’t fly if it was too windy or too hazy for his liking. He didn’t like to fly over water. He was ever fearful of a midair collision. He had bought the Zlin with his friend Dan Bitton-had flown it only a dozen or so times-but he was on the waiting list for a Cirrus SR20, which came with a whole-plane parachute that would deploy in the event of an emergency and-in theory-gently lower the plane to the ground.
Collins preferred to have a second pair of eyes with him in the cockpit, and on this day, as on many others, that pair belonged to Herman Luscher, a neighborly Austrian gent known as a Mr. Fixit who lived near Collins in suburban Lake County. As well as being a close friend, Luscher was a former navy pilot who flew corporate jets in his retirement.
Collins knew from the weather reports on his own show that it would be a fine day to fly: Visibility was good (ten miles) and the wind manageable (17 knots, or 20 miles per hour). There was snow on the ground, but not in the air. It was a relatively balmy 33 degrees.
His show that day-February 8, 2000-was a fairly typical affair. Collins chatted up his colleagues at the beginning and end of their news, weather, traffic, and agriculture reports, and chatted up his audience in between. Recently, an MD-80, one of the most common makes of passenger jets, had crashed, and another had been forced to make an emergency landing. But Collins, who had taught seminars to help people get over their fear of flying, assured listeners that the planes were safe. “I would have no problem getting on an MD-80 this afternoon,” Collins said.
A little while later he read an e-mail submission from a listener titled “Things I’ve Learned,” a list of homespun lessons purportedly absorbed through the eyes of individuals of different ages, ranging from “I’ve learned that you can’t hide a piece of broccoli in a glass of milk. Age 7” to “I’ve learned that there are people who love you dearly but just don’t know how to show it. Age 41.”