“Mike?” I asked over the weekend. “How would you feel about letting me run some extracts of your book The Gift on my site?”
“Sure,” Mike replied. “Let me see what I can do…”
So, here we are on a Monday afternoon and Mike Trahan has given me three great excerpts to show you… I have already raved about the first installment of his memoir and now I want you to see why I like this book so much… Read on!
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.
A Request for God
As we taxied in, I said a little prayer – Lord, I know, without a doubt that this is what I want to do the rest of my life. If it is in accord with Your Holy Will, please let it happen for me.
I had heard and read horror stories about pilots who had “stalled and spun in” and I knew this was a serious situation to find yourself in, especially if it was at low altitude and unexpected. Most of those pilots didn’t live through that kind of accident. Spin training was designed to familiarize us with the dynamics of a spin, to teach us how to recognize the onset of a spin, how to avoid getting into one, and finally, how to recover if we did get into one. Anyone who has ever seen an old flying combat movie has seen an airplane in a spin. When they got “shot down” in a movie they simply kick the airplane into a spin and let it flutter toward the ground. It is pretty impressive to see and even more impressive from the cockpit.
It was a cold day in late November when Clarence and I went up for my spin training. We had to climb to about five thousand feet so we could complete the maneuver at a safe altitude. He said to take it to 5300 feet so I could say I had been a mile high.
As we were climbing out of fifteen hundred feet I noticed that the tail was oscillating back and forth. I thought there may be something wrong with the flight controls, and I sure didn’t want to spin an airplane with faulty flight controls. About that time Clarence said, “What the hell is going on with the rudder?” Then he said, “Mike, take your feet off the rudder pedals for a minute.” When I did that the oscillating immediately stopped. I didn’t realize it, but I was so damn scared my legs were shaking and moving the rudders!
When we got to five thousand feet, I leveled off and he said, “I’ve got it.” We had discussed this maneuver in his pre-flight briefing, so I knew what was coming. To enter the spin we pulled out the carb heat and brought the engine to idle. We held the airplane in a constant nose high attitude until we felt the stall break. Then we moved the stick full aft and applied full left rudder – holding them both to the stops. The left wing went down, the right wing came up, and the nose dropped below the horizon. It looked like we were going straight down with the wings rotating around us. The earth was spinning at a dizzying rate. It was quite a ride!
Recovery from the spin was very straightforward and simple. You released the backpressure on the stick and moved it to neutral position while simultaneously centering the rudder pedals. Moving the stick forward broke the stall, and the airplane immediately stopped spinning and entered a dive. We then gently applied backpressure on the stick to recover from the dive and get back to level flight. As the airplane approached level attitude we added power and pushed the carb heat knob back in. And that was it!
Clarence did the first one and talked me all the way through it, explaining what he was doing each step of the way. We did a four-turn spin and had lost three thousand feet. He told me to climb back up to five thousand. He said, “Okay, stud, it’s your turn! I will talk you through this one. Learn well, because the next one is all you!” I set up for the stall by applying carb heat and bringing the engine to idle. I set the proper nose high attitude and gradually added backpressure to hold that attitude constant as the airspeed bled off and the lift on the wings decreased. Clarence said, “Okay, here is the break (stall), pull the stick all the way full aft and apply full left rudder. Hold that until I tell you otherwise.” The airplane went into a nice left turn spin. Clarence had showed me how to use a ground reference to keep track of the revolutions. After four turns he said, “Okay, let’s recover to live another day – stick and rudders neutral. Okay, spin is stopped, gently recover from the dive.”
We did a couple more, with me doing it without instruction, and he was convinced that I could recover from a spin if I accidentally got into one some day. That was my introduction into aerobatics and you know what – I LIKED it!
First Varsity Game – Meeting Joe Bob Isbel
Our first game that year was against Little Cypress. I don’t remember how deep into the game we were, but the Bears were driving for a score, and our right defensive end had to come out. I was tapped to take his place.
Little Cypress had a great fullback that year. His name was Joe Bob Isbel, and he was a man among boys out there. He was also a senior. Joe Bob went on to star as a defensive end at the University of Houston, and he later became one of the mainstays of the famous Dallas Cowboy Doomsday Defense. So, when I say he was great, I mean he was REALLY GREAT!
Joe Bob noticed I had joined the lineup and he probably sensed this was my first rodeo. He said something to the quarterback, who also turned and looked at me. Talk about broadcasting your intentions! I think everyone in the stadium knew where that next play was going – right at me! Sure enough, the hand-off went to Joe Bob, and came at me like a bull charging a red cape. I stopped him dead in his tracks, picked him up, and put him on his back. It was probably the best tackle I made all year. The crowd cheered and Coach Shoemaker went nuts on the sidelines. When I reached down to give Joe Bob a hand getting up, he just grinned at me. He didn’t say anything. When he got back in the huddle he kept looking my way and grinning at me. They called the same play again.
All I remember is seeing Joe Bob coming at me, shoulders down, head up, and gaining speed. He didn’t try to dodge me or juke at all. He just hit me head-on and the next thing I knew I was flat on my back. I felt his cleats digging into my thighs and stomach and shoulder pads as he ran over me. I played some more during that game, but I don’t remember much about it. After the game I shook hands with Joe Bob and congratulated him on a good game. He just grinned, slapped me on the butt, and said, “Nice tackle, rookie!” And that was my introduction to high school football.
You can read my interview with Mike Trahan here!
The Gift is available on Amazon.