Virgel Collins peered over clouds to look at his longtime homestead residence. A smile graced his face as he recalled fond memories of tinkering with plane engines and soaring the skies.
The Korean War U.S. Air Force veteran spent his days in the late 1950s as a plane mechanic, and he was able to relive many of those memories on a recent plane ride around Cambridge, courtesy of Prairie Senior Cottages.
Collins grew up on a farm in Osakis, Minnesota, through the Great Depression. After surviving the loss of that farm and tough times in the Depression, Collins developed a deep desire to serve his country. He enlisted straight out of high school with three of his friends. On Jan. 1, 1950, he boarded a train to San Antonio, Texas for basic training. He spent less than a year stateside before being deployed to the Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt, Germany.
As an aircraft mechanic, he spent many hours gearing up planes and making them flight-ready.
“Sometimes it would be all night that we had to work on a plane,” Collins said. He worked on high-speed C-47s and did everything from changing oil to being transported to another country for an American situation.
One night during his stay at the base, a sudden change of weather forced Collins to make a quick decision. The pilots had left a C-47 plane on the runway to get some much-needed rest. Bad weather was coming in quickly, but there were no pilots to drive the plane. With great caution and fear, Collins slipped into the pilot’s seat and quickly guided the mechanical bird to safety. It was his one experience in the cockpit, but Collins managed to “fly it on the ground” to get it protected, relayed Collins’ son Pete.
“My brief time in the cockpit is a memory I’ll cherish forever,” said Collins in a 2010 letter.
It wasn’t all grease and wrenches for Collins, though. He remembers a few adventures he had while he was overseas. A few of the enlisted men were given the liberty to tour through Europe. Collins went through Eastern Europe and down to Israel.
While Collins was overseas, he joined an international faith-based organization called The Navigators. He became heavily involved in it, and was even invited to speak at one of the rallies.
He continued participating even after his service with the Air Force, but he didn’t know that’s how he’d meet the love of his life. His late wife, Elaine, was involved with the organization and was out on a conference at the same place that Collins was working. The two later got married and had two children.
Planes still held a special place in Collins’s heart, and he taught for more than 32 years at Cambridge area schools. He did it all — from welding to wood working. Though he never flew a plane as a pilot, he loved being able to take a flight.
It was that spirit that inspired his son Pete, 52, to join the Air Force.
“Dad was always known for the quality of his work,” Pete said. “He took very much pride in what he did. It inspired me in my career.”
Pete spent his entire working life with the Air Force, including 21 years as a lieutenant colonel and several years as a civilian with the same military branch.
The military tradition will continue with Collins’s granddaughter, Hannah, enrolling in the U.S. Naval Academy.
It’s that pride and those memories that brought tears of joy to Collins’s face as the wheels returned to the runway after his recent flight.
“Thanks for giving me back my wings,” he told a caretaker at Prairie Senior Cottages. “I was so thrilled, you couldn’t believe it. It’s something I’ll remember for a long time.”