Darrell Collins – Aviation’s Raconteur

Darrell Collins is a star.

He doesn’t dress like a star. He’s wearing his tan and olive park ranger clothes for his presentation. He’s not star-rich. After all, he works for the National Park Service. But in the world of storytellers and in the world of Wright Brothers history, Collins is a dazzling celebrity.

Witness a recent talk Collins gave at Wright Brothers National Memorial, one of thousands he has given during his long career; children and adults sat rapt as he wove together the story of the Ohio brothers, the importance of their work, and its relevance to modern aviation.

“You see, you have to rrollllll with the machine,” Collins explains, illustrating with a waving motion of his hand. Collins was standing next to a reproduction of the Wrights’ 1902 glider in the flight room at the park, just yards from the exact spot of the first flight. Somehow, he made the confusing aerodynamic concepts of roll, pitch, and yaw – the Wrights’ breakthrough that made flight controllable – understandable to even the children.

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Demonstrating wing warping that occurred when the pilots shifted their weight left or right helped turn the Wright Flyer right or left after one side of the wing went down when the other went up, also known as roll. Roll control is now provided by ailerons. He explained how the tail rudder will point the airplane’s nose left or right which coordinates the turn. This control is known as yaw. Further he explained how the tail elevator controls the aircraft’s lift or pitch.

Collins speaking to the audience: “Do you realize that airplanes and gliders – they are not the only manmade flying machines that utilize pitch, roll, and yaw?” he asks. “Folks – just about everything that flies: satellites, missiles, rockets, space shuttles, use the same fundamental principles.”

“You see,” he says, his voice rising, “this is the immortal legacy of the Wright brothers.” He explains that every talk is a little different, depending on the audience and the setting, but he usually closes by referring to the brothers’ legacy to the entire world of aviation.

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By the time Collins clinches his talk by pointing out the breathtaking speed of the advancement of aviation – man was walking on the moon a mere 66 years after the Wrights’ first flight – audiences are eating out of Collins’ hand. Starry-eyed children and older folk alike, often come up to him after the talk to shake his hand or even get his autograph, proving that star status has been conferred to Collins for good reason. It’s not unusual after Collins’ presentations to see people sitting, as if stunned, wiping tears from their eyes.

In an online survey taken in 2009 on which interpretive Park Service program visitors found most fascinating, one reader who had visited the Wright Brothers National Memorial in the 1980s responded:

“The ranger gave a talk so animated, so passionate, so personal that he seemed to have been there . . . every eye was riveted on him and every single person was swept up in the drama and passion that this ranger imparted . . . I’ve never encountered the chills about any subject like I did that windy morning on the Outer Banks.” But the commenter said he didn’t know the ranger’s name.

“I’ll bet that was Darrell Collins,” said another commenter, who added he had seen Collins leave audiences at air shows spellbound. “Yes, listening to him did indeed bring chills down the spine of this old ranger and pilot,” he added.

An Outer Banks native who comes from a long family line with its own impressive legacy, Collins has a degree in geology and history from Elizabeth City State University and started with the Park Service in 1977 as a seasonal ranger. For eight years, he strived to get a permanent position and knew the way to do that was to be the best history interpreter he could be. In those days, he says, he gave as many as eight 30- to 45-minute talks a day about the Wright brothers. Today, he gives a 20-minute talk usually just once or twice a day.

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Commemorating the achievements of the Wright brothers stands a 61-foot tall granite monument perched on a 90-foot hill. Dedicated in 1932, the inscription etched into the base of the monument emphasizes that more than mere genius was required to conceive and achieve powered flight:

“In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright. Conceived by genius. Achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith.”

A year into his new job, the park celebrated the 75th anniversary of flight and then five years later there came another big celebration for the 80th anniversary. In those years, Collins says, he was influenced by lectures on the Wrights given by Paul Garber, at the time the historian emeritus at the National Air & Space Museum, and Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith, a famous British aviation historian.

“Those men really inspired me,” Collins says. “They really opened my eyes on how great the Wright brothers really were. They were very animated; they were very good speakers. I kind of emulated their style.”

Tall and slender, Collins, 59, has an easy-going persona that is anything but flashy. He has a soft, southern lilt in his voice which is complemented by his own mellifluous speaking style. But like any skilled performer, he uses his low-key personality as scaffolding for the amazing, All-American story of the Wrights. Little by little, Collins builds on the narrative of their lives: the era of invention they lived in, their evolution from bicycle mechanics to inventors, their close family, and the reasons they came from Dayton, Ohio to Kitty Hawk to fly. But Collins shows the most passion in his speeches when talking about the brothers’ personal qualities. He will raise his voice in modulated steps, using dramatic language, and speaking at times with a preacher’s cadence to highlight the touchstone of their achievement. It was their work ethic and curiosity, he says, that made flight possible and earned them their honored place in the history of aviation. It was their perseverance, their stellar character, their determination, their dedication, their incredible ingenuity, Collins tells audiences, that led to them solving the mystery of flight.

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He likes to interact with the audience as much as possible, he says, to draw them into the story. He feeds off the energy and dynamics of each audience, whether they’re a group of school students, the North Carolina General Assembly, or old-timers who have lived the history of aviation. For that reason, he never gets bored.

“That’s the way I’ve always done it,” he says. “It’s more of an emotional connection.”

Undoubtedly, there are members of Collins’ family who have also lived the history of aviation. Members on both sides of his family were part of the Freedmen’s Colony on Roanoke Island after the Civil War, and many of his ancestors never left the island when the colony dispersed. Several family members were surfmen at historic Pea Island Lifesaving Station, the only all-black station in the nation.

Like many of his relatives, Collins’ father Frank served in the U.S. Coast Guard. When Darrell was five years old in 1960, the senior Collins was driving to Norfolk with four other Coast Guardsmen after Hurricane Donna passed the Outer Banks. As it turned out, they were traveling during the lull in the eye of the storm, and his father was killed at age 28. His mother, Dellerva, later became one of the most prominent citizens of Manteo, serving for 26 years on the town board. After her death in 2005, Darrell was elected to her commissioner seat, which he still holds.

Over the years, the National Park Service has sent Collins all over the world to give his Wright brothers presentation, gaining him the reputation as a top Wright historian and sought-after speaker. He has met many great aviators, famous pilots and aviation experts, including John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, and even actor Jimmy Stewart, a World War II bomber pilot, whom he sat next to at a dinner reception.

In 1990, Collins was awarded the Freeman Tilden Award as the Park Service’s top interpretive ranger; and in 2003, he was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine by the governor of North Carolina. Also that year, Collins was honored by the National Aeronautic Association with the Paul Tissandier Diploma.

Collins has two grown sons, one of whom also works for the Park Service. His wife Tonya owns Outer Banks Dream Realty, the only black-owned real estate company on the Outer Banks. For now, Collins has no plans to stop talking about the Wright brothers.
“I could retire now if I wanted,” he says. “I’ve been here 35 years. But I’m still having fun.” ♦

Wright Brothers National Memorial is open seven days a week but closed on Christmas Day. Visitor center hours are 9 am – 5 pm. Flight Room talks are approximately 25 minutes in length and are conducted twice a day during winter hours and up to four times a day in season. nps.gov/wrbr/
Catherine Kozak
Catherine Kozak has worked as a writer and reporter on the Outer Banks since 1995. She lives in Nags Head and enjoys running in the woods with her dog, Rosie.

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