Top Gun: Darien's Maj. Chris Collins has reached the height of his dreams
Barbara Collins was teaching at Greenwich High School in the very early 1990s when she was called out of class for a phone call.
It was from a staffer at Darien High School, where her son Christopher was a student, with a question.
“Does your son have a pilot’s license? Or a plane? If so, the principal would like to talk to you,” Barbara recalls.
While she says it was not funny at the time, she can laugh today at the prank her son Chris pulled at Darien High, “buzzing” the school three times in a small aircraft he had rented with pooled money from his friends.
The principal told Barbara at the time it looked like the plane was going to come through the window. And despite the disciplinary action, she told The Darien Times that an administrator told Chris it was the most amazing stunt he’d seen of his career.
Today, Maj. Christopher Collins, who would later serve with the Blue Angels, says was suspended for three days from school and grounded for a lot longer than that, but says it is something his classmates were unlikely to forget.
Nor his teachers — who would call him “Kamikaze Chris” when grading his papers, according to Barbara.
Chris moved to Darien when he was one year old, moving near the boy who would grow up to be Darien Police Lt. Jeremiah Marron.
Chris attended Tokeneke School, Middlesex and was Darien High School Class of ’93. He knew what he wanted to do with his life at a very early age — from the first time he saw Top Gun. The movie, starring Tom Cruise, covers students in the United States Navy elite fighter weapons school competing to be best in the class. Chris wanted to fly — and not fly just anything, he wanted to be a Navy pilot taking off from `aircraft carriers.
When Chris turned 12, he started taking flying lessons at $90 each — with money his mother said he earned from various jobs including lawn mowing in babysitting. His parents would drive him to Bridgeport for each lesson.
As he got closer to 16, when he was able to do his first solo flight, his parents began to chip in to get hours under his belt to prepare to be able to do it on his 16th birthday.
“It started to snow that morning,” Barbara told The Darien Times this week,”and he had to circle, touch and land.”
“We were listening to the tower talk to him,” she said.
“On his first landing, we heard ‘Cesna 242, abort your landing’ — what was happening was a small commuter plane had crossed his path,” she said.
The drill for 16, as nerve-wracking as it was, was nothing compared to getting his full pilot’s license at 17.
To get his license, Chris needed to successfully fly to three neighboring airports, including Albany and Boston, check in, and return.
“At the time, there were really no cell phones — that was a long 10 hours,” Barbara said.
But it was worth the wait — and Chris was a fully licensed pilot.
He was able to take his mother for a flight on Mother’s Day — and Barbara said much like in a car, she was the backseat pilot.
“I’m pointing out every plane in the sky,” she said, laughing.
“I said, ‘I just want to make sure you’re aware it is over there,’” she said.
While most Darien teens were likely happy with their newfound independence with their driver’s licenses, Chris, who was a member of Post 53, was flying his friends and dates out for their night out.
“He and his friends would rent a plane and they flew to Montauk to the airport right across the dunes. They’d take a picnic dinner and fly back,” she said.
Though he is sure his parents were nervous, Chris said they were always “very supportive.”
For her part, Barbara said, life with Chris “was never boring.”
When it was time, Chris applied to the Naval Academy. But “as luck would have it,” he didn’t get in — instead he attended Norwich University, where he met with a Marine recruiter. And then his military journey began.
Chris was commissioned a Marine Corps second lieutenant through the Platoon Leaders Class and reported to Quantico, Va., for The Basic School in July 1997. He reported for aviation indoctrination at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., in February 1998. Chris completed primary flight training in the T-34C Mentor at NAS Whiting Field, Fla., and transferred to NAS Meridian, Miss., for intermediate flight training. While there, he flew the T-2C Buckeye. Chris was then assigned to NAS Kingsville, Texas, for advanced flight training where he flew the T-45A Goshawk. He completed his flight training in April 2000 and received his wings of gold in May.
In July 2000, Chris reported to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 101 (VMFAT-101), the “Sharpshooters,” at MCAS Miramar, Calif., for training in the F/A-18 Hornet. In September 2001, he joined Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323 (VMFA-323), the “Death Rattlers.” Chris deployed aboard USS Constellation (CV 64) in October 2002, flying combat missions in support of Operations Southern Watch and Iraqi Freedom. Chris also deployed aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), flying combat operations in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom III. While serving with VMFA-323, he served as the Logistics Officer, Schedules Writer, Powerline Division Officer, Administrative Officer and the Assistant Aviation Maintenance Officer. While there, the “Death Rattlers” received the 2003 Robert M. Hanson Award as the Marine Corps Aviation Association’s Fighter Attack Squadron of the Year.
In October 2005, Chris returned to VMFAT-101 as an F/A-18 instructor pilot. During his tour, Chris was selected to attend the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) and graduated in July 2007.
Chris joined the Blue Angels in September 2008, where he served as the Left Wing pilot in 2009 and the Slot pilot in 2010. In 2011 he served as the Air Officer at I Marine Expeditionary Force in Camp Pendleton where he deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. From April 2013-August 2014, LtCol Collins served as the Executive Officer at Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 225. From there he moved to a position at Expeditionary Strike Group THREE where he served as the Plans and Training officer until he retired after 20 years of service in May 2017. He has accumulated more than 4,500 flight hours and 350 carrier arrested landings. His decorations include two Meritorious Service Medals, three Strike Flight Air Medals, two Navy and three Marine Corps Commendation Medals with Combat Distinguishing Device, a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal and various personal and unit awards.
As far as deployment, Chris said there were occasions when he was fired upon — and though he navigated successfully through it, he said the situation is “never comfortable.”
Barbara added “While in Iraq (on an aircraft carrier), Connie Chung of CNN selected Christopher as a young pilot to follow. CNN crews shot five short films on his “life” as a fighter pilot, so we were able to see him during those months.”
Now retired from military service, Chris lives in San Diego with his wife, Tracey, his daughter, Addison, and stepson Michael, along with two boxers, Oscar and Rufus.
He is currently flying for Federal Express.
Lt. Marron said he and Chris grew up in Darien a house away from each other and “have been great friends our entire lives.”
“From his time served in combat to his accomplishments with the Blue Angels, it’s been nothing short of spectacular following his career and learning of his success,” he said.
“I am grateful for his service and I’d like to congratulate him on his retirement from the United States Marine Corps. I wish him all the best on his new endeavor and hope that he comes back to visit Darien soon!” Marron said.
Barbara said “Jerry Marron grew up next door to us, and we are just as proud of his accomplishments as we are of Christopher’s.”
“It’s hard to believe that his days as a fighter pilot are over, but I can honestly say he loves his new position as a FedEx pilot,” she said.
“Christopher has had an amazing career – he made his dream of “flying jets off an aircraft carrier” come true,” Barbara said.