By Michael Stephan
My memories of Jan are limited to a handful of encounters at airshows, where I could slip in a few words of awe, and some short conversations and joke telling minutes at our EAA chapter meetings. Of course, he entertained and inspired when he spoke. I was a fan from the first time I saw him, but I learned so much more about him from his memorial service and digging on the internet.
For many years, in January he spoke at our chapter meeting and gave us the state of the Airshow community. He would also hand out Collmer Semiconductor calendars, which included an amazing pencil drawing of iconic aircraft every month’s page. I took that calendar home and showed it to my dad and he kept it for several days looking at those drawings. I kept the calendars and am on a hunt to find which box in my shop they are in. I could not find any of those drawings on the internet. So if you have them, let me know I would like to see them again.
Jan loved the outdoors. Like most boys who grew up in Texas, Jan loved to fish. He even sold a device to measure the depth of an area you are casting into. It
was a simple and creative solution using a basic principle of science. Hunting was another passion of his, except it is not the hunting we are used to here. He hunted for fossils. He knew many of the river beds in Texas and could tell you what time in prehistory they originated. At the reception, his brother Robert, who sounds just like Jan, told of the many hunts they were together. Jan used his flying skills to scout the river beds and knew after a rainstorm the hunting would be good about 12 days afterwards.
His brother told a story of one “hunting” trip when Jan found himself stuck in quicksand. With great exertion, Jan swam his way out. Robert said it took him 30 minutes to swim the 8 ft to the edge. Completely exhausted and covered in mud, Jan walked over and cleaned himself off in the nearby stream. Robert, seeing the life and death struggle his brother just experienced, advised that they quit and go home. Jan declined and continued the hunt.
While scouting a river down in a canyon, Jan and his brother flew below the rim of the narrow river canyon. A bridge was in their path and Jan decided to wisely to go over instead of under it. When they pulled up and rose above the canyon edge, they spotted a farmer plowing his field. Robert said, “That farmer got the surprise of his life.”
Jan was also very generous. In the Catholic community we call it “Time and Treasure” and Jan gave both. He distributed that generosity to the local colleges and Catholic prep schools, since he was a big supporter of education. He would also encourage others to do the same. As a local entrepreneur, he talked at many business schools about the path to success.
He served on many local boards, but chaired the Dallas Chamber of Commerce and the DFW Airport Board. In 1996, he dedicated a new runway at D/FW Airport, cutting the ribbon with his propeller as he flew by.
He loved flying and frequently offered the “Jan Collmer” ride in the Pitts and the Extras. Jan gave a ride to one of the executives of Fuji Electronics on a trip to Dallas. After the aerobatic maneuvers, Jan let the executive fly for a few maneuvers. On the ground the man thanked Jan for making his lifelong dream come true, because like many of us, as a kid he looked to the sky and dreamed of flying. Jan made that wish come true for him, and he challenged us all to do the same. Help make someone’s dream come true. That ride also struck a chord with Jan about his love of flying. Many goals recede once they are accomplished. The feeling of exhilaration after climbing a mountain, running a marathon, winning a challenge dissipate after the accomplishment, but flying is different.
Jan felt the same excitement on every flight. I feel the same way, (except for me it is the accomplishment of making back to the ground and being able to reuse the airplane).
I have barely touched on Jan’s incredible flying career, which was one of his greatest passions. It is rare to see an airshow performer over 70 years old, but Jan’s last performance was in May of 2014 at the age of 79. His first airshow was in 1978, and in the last 35 years he performed more than 1000 times at 400 different airshows. In 2009 Jan’s iconic red-white -blue Fina Extra300L, was getting a little worn and Jan was ready to donate it to a museum. However, Chuck Coleman convinced Jan to sell it to him so he could use it to share the joy of flying with many more. Jan’s crew chief Jack Pape helped load the Extra on a trailer where it traveled 1400 miles to its new home. It was completely taken apart and rebuilt and Chuck Coleman now flies it at airshows.
In 2012 Jan wrote a book. Not about flying, but a book to help aspiring entrepenuers. Titled Go Start Something! Live Life on the Edge, the book offers Jan’s 50 rules for the young business starter. It is a self published practical guide to stepping out on your own. I bought the book the other day and here are my top 5 tips that also apply to we airplane builders:
1. It is impossible to make a decision that changes just one thing.
2. Pay attention to details, but don’t lose the big picture.
3. Quickly reverse a bad decision.
4. Never invent when you can copy.
5. Avoid paralysis by analysis.
My favorite accomplishment of Jan Collmers was his never ending push to create the Frontiers of Flight Museum. He not only knew the importance of preserving history, but Jan’s Iconic Extra packed on a trailer also the need to share it with the public. In 1988, with help from Kay Bailey Hutchison and William E. Cooper, the George Haddaway aviation collection found a home at the newly created Frontiers of Flight Museum.
Many have visited the museum and many a child has had the birthday party of their dreams there. The museum is a great collection of artifacts, many of them from local contributors. In 2014 the museum launched a new Education Fund honoring the memory of Jan Collmer. The Jan Collmer Education Fund will be used to carry on Jan Collmer’s legacy to educate, motivate and inspire the next generation.
The Jan Collmer Education Fund
• Supports the Museum’s extensive education programs
• Provides scholarships and supporting program expenses for Flight School Summer Camps, education tours and outreach programs, and special education
projects and initiatives
• Enables underserved children an opportunity to benefit from these STEM enrichment programs
If you wish to keep the spirit of Jan going, consider donating to the Jan Collmer Education Fund.
Jan Collmer never retired from life. He never withdrew or quit exploring. I’ve heard the phrase, “He lived life to the fullest.” Now I have an example. Jan Collmer left a big imprint on this world. His story inspires us to do more with our lives. Like the title of his book says, “Go Start Something! Live Life on the Edge”