Mike Trahan is not a man who writes fiction. Mike writes about the reality of his life. Take the boy from West Orange, Texas. Take the fully trained pilot wearing his wings. Take the man who sat back and remembered where he came from to write his life story. Everyone today it seems is writing a memoir– but you need to have memories to write one, and just one conversation with Mike Trahan tells you that his memories are golden. Let me show you what I mean…
Flying Lessons Summer 1957
The date was July 14, 1957. It had been a typically hot and humid summer day in Southeast Texas. Late that evening I decided to roll down the windows in my car and take a nice leisurely drive to cool off. I was heading south on Highway 87, and when I approached Brown Airport, I noticed there was an airplane sitting right next to the parking lot. There were three men standing beside it. I had not been close to an airplane in ten years, and that was the one in Popeye’s back yard when I was five years old.
I pulled into a parking space and walked up to the men. I learned their names were Alfred Grant “Van” Vanneman, Clarence Feuge, and Edward Feuge. Van was president of Van Air Flying Service and the Feuge brothers were two of his Flight Instructors. I asked them if they gave rides in that airplane, and Clarence answered, “Naw son, we sell them for two dollars!” I reached into my pocket, pulled out two one dollar bills, and told them I would like to go up. Just like that! What appeared to be a spur-of-the-moment decision on my part, was actually something I had wanted to do all my life, and I jumped on my first opportunity to do it.
Ed and Clarence flipped a coin to see who would do the flying, and Ed won the toss. While he was walking around the plane, checking it out, Clarence helped me strap into the back seat and briefed me on what to do and what not to do on the flight.
The airplane was an Aeronca Champion 7AC. It was a tube and fabric two place trainer that had been built in 1948. The engine was a sixty-five horsepower Continental and it turned a wooden prop. It was a conventional gear airplane, which meant it had two main wheels under the wings and a tail wheel. The seating was tandem, with the pilot sitting up front and the passenger behind him.
To this day, I can still remember minute details about that flight. The smells come to mind first. There was the hint of gasoline fumes, because Ed got some on his hands when he drained a little bit out of the tanks. He did that to ensure there was no water in the fuel. Too much water in the line could kill the engine. The airplane must have been recently recovered, too, because there was the distinct smell of airplane dope (paint). And there was the aroma of fresh mowed grass. Someone had apparently mowed the turf taxiways and runways that day.
During our taxi out to the runway, I could hear the engine purring like a well-tuned Swiss watch and the prop making a swishing beating sound as it cut through the cooling afternoon air. I heard an unexpected and unfamiliar squeaking sound as we moved along the uneven taxiway. It was the fabric rubbing against the tubing in the fuselage and along the ribs in the wings.
In about five minutes, we found ourselves on the south end of the closest runway. I later learned they called it the parallel runway, because it ran parallel to Highway 87. Later it became Runway 03/31, which was the magnetic heading you read on the airplane’s compass when you were lined up with it.
Ed stopped short of the runway and performed his preflight checks: CIGFTPR – Controls, Instruments, Gas, Flaps, Trim, Prop, and Run-up. To learn that acronym, Clarence later gave me the crutch “CIGarettes For The Poor Russians.” As you can see, I still remember it to this day.
Ed ran the little Continental up to 1500 RPM and checked each magneto individually, to see if the engine would still run on one, in case we lost one sometime in flight. A one hundred fifty RPM drop was acceptable with only one magneto working. He also checked the carburetor heat to ensure it was working. When in flight, if you pull the engine to idle, there is the possibility of accumulating ice in the carburetor, which could kill the engine, and that is never desirable. Soon his preflight checks were done and we were ready to go. Ed made a three hundred sixty degree turn on the taxiway, checking for other airplanes in the traffic pattern. There were none, so he taxied onto the runway. As he lined up for takeoff he said, “You ready to go, Mike?” I replied with a nervous but enthusiastic YES!
Ed slowly added power to the engine. From idle to full power took about three seconds. The little Champ started rolling and I could see the rudder pedals at my feet moving to the right to counteract the torque of the propeller. Most small airplanes are equipped with dual flight controls, and my set of controls repeated what Ed’s were doing. We tracked straight ahead on the runway, but I could barely see it because of the angle of the fuselage with the tail-wheel on the ground. The nose of the airplane was sticking up pretty good and only Ed, in the front seat, could see over it. The left main wheel was about the only thing I could see clearly, so I concentrated on it. As is turned faster and faster it threw fresh grass clippings up behind it. And then I saw the control stick going forward and felt the tail coming up. We were now in a level attitude and, by looking to either side of Ed, I could see the entire runway in front of us. In a few seconds, the stick came back slightly, the nose pointed up a little bit, and we were flying.
I am not skillful enough to be able to describe the feelings I had at that instant. Let’s just say it felt like freedom to me. At long last I had “Slipped the surly bonds of earth,” as J. Gillespe MaGee said in his epic poem “High Flight.” Of course, there was some anxiety because this was so new and foreign to me; but the overriding emotion was pure joy, because being aloft was even better than I dreamed it would be.
Ed climbed straight ahead to four hundred feet before making a left ninety and then a right forty-five degree turn to exit the traffic pattern. I concentrated on the sights below as they unfolded. The cars on Hwy 87 kept getting smaller and smaller, until they started looking like miniature models and the horizon kept expanding.
We climbed to about two thousand feet and Ed leveled off. As he did, the power came back and our speed increased from sixty-five to around eighty mph. It was nice and quiet and smooth.
He took me on a tour of my old hometown and nothing looked familiar to me at first. Then I started picking out landmarks and getting myself oriented. To the left was the McArthur Drive in Theater, below us were the Tower Café and the traffic circle, and I realized we were heading straight up McArthur Drive towards downtown Orange. On the way to town, I saw Zack’s Drive-In Restaurant, which was the local hangout for all Orange County teenagers. After flying over the city center, we made a swing around the Moth Ball Fleet of Navy ships that were docked in the Sabine River. Until then I didn’t realize how many of them were there. We then flew over Levingston Shipbuilding Company and then headed southwest toward West Orange. I told Ed I went to West Orange school, so he flew me over the school and the new football stadium. I never did find my house, though. After another swing around DuPont and the other plants on Chemical Row, it was time to land.
Ed flew directly over the airport at two thousand feet, made a left turn that put us at a forty-five degree angle to the runway, and descended to eight hundred feet, which was the pattern altitude at Brown Airport. When we were about a half-mile from the runway, he made a ninety degree right turn. Once we were parallel to the runway, he pulled out the carb heat knob and brought the engine back to idle. He ran through the Pre-Landing Checklist as we descended – Gas, Undercarriage, Mixture, Prop (GUMP). The name Gump would become world famous later on, for a completely different reason.
After we had lost a few hundred feet and were about a half-mile off the end of the runway, Ed made another left turn. This was known as Base Leg. We were there for just a few seconds and he made one last turn to line up with the runway for landing. This was known as Final Approach. I could see the end of the runway staying exactly in the same spot on the windshield as we descended toward it. At first it looked very narrow, but as we got closer to the ground it started to widen out. When we were about five feet above the end of the runway Ed gently started leveling out and breaking our rate of descent. We touched down about five hundred feet beyond the approach end of the runway. It was a very smooth landing, but instead of being exhilarated by it, I felt a tinge of disappointment. Not because I was not thrilled by the flight, but because I was sad that I had to be earthbound again.
To find out more about Mike Trahan follow this link over to the site of my good buddy Nick Wale where you will find not only two more extracts from Mike’s memoir but a wonderful interview with the man himself, and a whole host of other high quality interviews that just need to be read….