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PROFILES

 

French Connection
September 15, 1998

Between the southern tip of South Caicos Island and the north coast of the Domincan Republic there are 120 nautical miles of uninterrupted, deep, blue ocean. Last spring, French Connection pilots, Montaine Mallet and Daniel Heligon, sailed high above it, in their two CAP 10s, enroute to a week of island air shows. Looking at the water, Montaine thought of the Aeropostale pilots who inspired her to fly.

They carried people and their dreams across the wide Atlantic with the mail, and did it on compass headings and faith. In the 20s and 30s, they braved hardships and handicaps, the unknown and the unproven. Montaine read about them when she was 12 years old. From then on she wanted what they had--their passion, their purpose, their camaraderie and their joy.

At 19, when she was old enough to pay for flying lessons, she looked for adventure at the local aeroclub. But it wasn’t there, not the way it was in the book she read about Henri Guillaumet. He spent a week in the Andes, without food or sleep, when winter weather forced his plane down. When he walked out on frost bitten feet he said, “A dog would not have done what I did.” Montaine associated flying with adventure and extraordinary challenges.

Perhaps this is why she was the perfect partner for Daniel Heligon, when Avion Mudry sent him to the United States to promote and sell the CAP 10 in 1973.

Daniel was inspired to fly at an early age, as well. But, it wasn’t through books. His father took him to the aeroclub on weekends and helped him to fly. He was such a natural that the club showed his flying off, using him like a mascot to draw crowds for glider rides. He flew his first aerobatic air show in 1947 in one of their gliders.

In 1951 he joined the French Air Force and soon headed for the United States for joint military flight training. Within 18 months he had both American and French fighter pilot wings.

Although the Air Force was not his intended career path—he had planned to be an architect and builder—he loved the flying opportunities. So, every five years, when his commitment was up, he renewed it to get another rating, to fly another airplane or to do what hadn’t been done.

In 1967, when the French Air Force wanted a light plane aerobatic team for air shows, competition and instructing Daniel helped start it. They trained in the Stampe, the CAP 10, the Zlin 526, and the CAP 20. Within three years they were flying aerobatics at the world competition level in Hullavington, England. In 1971 Charlie Hillard invited Daniel to compete in Sherman, Texas at the Nationals. Although he had to borrow a plane he had never flown before—N22Q, Curtis Pitts’ prototype S-2A--he placed ninth overall. In both 1971 and 1972 Daniel was the National Aerobatic Champion of France.

At the end of 1971, because his 20-year stint was up, he had to retire from the military. Unfortunately, this kept him off the 1972 French National Aerobatic Team. The world contest, was held in France that year at Salon de Provence, a military base. The technicality that kept him off the world team was that he was a civilian. His teammates were all military pilots. They made him the backup, the alternate pilot.

Montaine was there. The weather was low. For a while the contest was stopped.

“How about doing a CAP 10 demo?” the organizers suggested to Daniel.

This was a bad idea, Montaine says. “The military had a 300 foot minimum, but Daniel had nothing to lose and gave his best demo, right on the deck. It was a hell of a demo, a little revenge on his part. The military was not happy and kicked him out of the base.”

The Americans were impressed. Charlie Hillard, Art Scholl, Tom Poberezney and Gene Soucy all remembered his show.

In July 1973 Mr. Mudry sent Daniel and Montaine to New York to sell the CAP 10 to American pilots, although it was not quite ready to sell. It was a little too expensive for the American market, and it was not yet certified.

They set up in Orange County, New York and flew from airport to airport to demonstrate it. Daniel flew many solos. He flew like a champion and people took notice, but they asked, “Is the plane certified?”

“No.”

“Do you know when it will be certified?”

“No.”

“Do you have any for sale?”

“No.”

Montaine says. “We were like the old pioneers that came and didn’t know the language and started the farm they didn’t know how to farm. We had no help and no knowledge, but we learned how to survive.”

In 1974, their second summer in New York, the locals said, “You have to take it to Oshkosh to show it to the fanatics of aviation.”

Montaine, who was in charge of the money, scratched figures on a little piece of paper: hours, fuel, tie downs, food--no motels, they could sleep in a tent--$500 was all they had, but that should do.

Oshkosh was the place to be. They could see that. In fact, every evening, after the show they rode the bus from the show line to the camp ground. On the bus and through the window they could see people talking about Daniel’s show. Everywhere they looked, people were mimicking a knife edge turn with their hands.

“He was the first to do the 360 degree inverted turn. Instead of being upside down, he would come from right side up, put the aircraft in knife-edge, reverse. A lot of people copied him afterwards. It is very steep in the inverted, so it looks like knife-edge, but he is pushing forward, like a mad man, very low, getting the aircraft past knife-edge, then reversing around. You can’t do more than 70 degrees, but because of the reverse dihedral of the aircraft, it looks like knife-edge.

The plane was exciting and people loved it, but they couldn’t buy it until Mudry got it certified.

They called the factory in France. “When will it be certified?

“Soon,” they said. But, no one was actually working on it until Daniel and Montaine got fed up. When they did, Daniel returned to France. Montaine stayed behind to take stock.

She said to herself, “Montaine, you don’t know a damn thing about this business, but you are 24 years old and president of the company. You have two aircraft to fly, demonstrate and sell, that are not certified and you have no money. What are you going to do?”

First she moved the planes to Sky Acres Airport, a better location, then headed for France, as well. The only way to get the airplane certified was to do it themselves.

With singleness of purpose they got it done. Daniel flew; Montaine copied numbers, filed reports and traveled back and forth to Brussels to meet officials. “I had no clue what I was doing, but it worked,” she says. With the French certification in hand they returned to the States to begin the same, tedious procedure with the FAA.

For three months they disassembled and reassembled the aircraft. Daniel continued his solo shows. They both trained to fly the dual. In between, they tested wires, measured gauges, opened ports. Though exhausted, they progressed.

“Then we had the big accident,” Montaine says.

“In one of the inspections I left the tension meter in the fuselage. It stayed there for many hours, going back and forth through the fuselage, until one day it blocked the elevator in the down position.

“I didn’t know what it was. I only had 350 or 400 hours by that time. When I couldn’t pull back on the stick, and the airplane was going very fast, and I didn’t know what was going on, I told my student to bail out. Then, I tried to get control of the aircraft, which was stupid, because I lost a few seconds.

“At Sky Acres the airport is on top of a little hill. When I bailed out, I opened so low that from the ground the people told Daniel they only saw one parachute.

“I remember hearing this big noise; it was enormous. I thought it was the airplane crashing, but it was the opening of the parachute. I looked down to see where the aircraft crashed and I hit the ground at the same time. If you look at somebody coming down in a parachute—in two or three seconds they fall 50 feet. God was with me that day. I was glad I was 95 pounds at the time. Now, I would have gone quicker!”

She fell through a tree and the ripcord slashed open her chin. “If you pull the ripcord with one hand the rope goes around your chin and it rips you up,” she says. But worse than the 20 stitches was the pain of knowing someone could have been killed.

Meanwhile, the FAA certified the CAP 10. But Mr. Mudry was ready to pull out of the US market. Daniel and Montaine decided to go it alone, keeping the Mudry name, which he agreed to, but with no financial support from abroad. While it was tough, it was never boring. They borrowed money, bought a new engine, built up a second airplane, sold both planes and leased them back to use.

Business took off. Daniel flourished. His solo was low, quick, precise, right in front of the crowd. Anyone who saw his snap roll on take off remembered it. People called him the Art Scholl from France.

Students lined up to fly. In one year they taught 800 hours of aerobatics. Slowly they headed for the big time. At first, their dual act was only a minor draw.

The Cleveland Show of 1977 changed all that. This is where they got their name

In the middle of the summer, Montaine told Daniel, Chuck Newcomb hired the dual act for Labor Day.”

“What!” he said, “We are not ready.”

His solo was practiced, but the dual needed polish. This is when the training began. They practiced hard, day after day, flight after flight. Daniel was Montaine’s teacher. He taught her aerobatics—competition, air show flying and instructing. He coached her on style, form, planning and smoothness. But true leadership a person learns on her own. The team leader was something she had to become on her own. It requires decision-making and self-confidence. Cleveland gave her some of that.

“We had a lot of applause,” she says. “People liked it.” And, for the first time they knew their name. It was in the program: The CAP 10 Team presents The French Connection.

“French Connection?” they said. “This is cute. Can we keep the name?”

Chuck said, “Sure.”

Another equally defining moment, was their second year at Oshkosh. “We did our show, came back to the parking area and everybody was in front of us—all the performers and all the organizers. Daniel and I looked at each other. ‘What did we do wrong?’ Then we opened the canopy and they all applauded.

“That day we felt we were part of the aerobatic family. That was our turning point. Now, I have lived longer in the United States than I have in France. Although I feel very French, I feel American, too.”

By 1990 they had been together for 19 years. They met when Montaine was in her last year of a specialized engineering school. She and Daniel attended meetings once a week at Avion Mudry. She was 24 and thought, “He has a cute face and a cute smile,” she says.

“But, you know, when you are in your early 20s, you sort of fall in love with everybody,” she says. “Everybody that is fun, that likes to laugh, that loves aviation. You just love them. Daniel loved flying and he was very enthusiastic.”

Daniel was married when they met, but work threw Daniel and Montaine together. They shared a passion for airplanes, for aerobatics, for adventure.

“We started out by liking each other,” Montaine says. “Maybe we were a little bit in love, but we really respected each other. It is so easy to be attracted by people, to be a butterfly. Then you never build anything and you are never happy. A good relationship is very important.

“Little by little we found our niche. I am more the office person. As a joke I say, I make the money and he spends it. I am in the office paying bills and trying to generate air shows, sales or students. And, he is in the hangar working on the aircraft, making sure the shop is okay and buying stuff that we need.

“We are a good match. We are so different. I don’t like to go to bars, he doesn’t like to go to the movies. I like art. He doesn’t like to go to museums.”

When Daniel’s marriage ended in the 70s, he and Montaine talked of marrying each other, but that wasn’t the right moment. The right moment came in the fall of 1990. At the end of the air show season they parked their airplanes and headed for marriage and France.

However, as usual by this time, air shows followed them everywhere, even to their wedding reception. “There is someone on the phone from Brazil,” the restaurant manager said. “Is this a joke, or what?” No, it was a congratulations from an air show in Porto Allegre, Brazil.

They flew there in April 1990, and again in 1996, in two, carefully inspected, borrowed CAP 10s. “We said, ‘Yes,’ but that we would have to have the right to inspect the aircraft and refusal to fly if we thought they were not airworthy,” Montaine says.

On their first visit they added hang gliding over Rio to their vast flying experience. “We met a couple who are aviation fanatics,” Montaine says. “It just happened that while we were there it was my birthday, so they bought me a hang gliding dual ride. You jump off the top of Rio and you land very close to Ipanema on a little beach.

“For about 2 seconds you think you are going to die and it is totally stupid and really crazy. Then you start to fly and it is beautiful,” Montaine says.

Daniel might disagree. Montaine insisted he go. He said, “I am gong to be afraid.”

She said, “Yes, for 30 seconds you are going to be close to s---ing your underwear, because it is really scary. Once you start flying, I promise you will thank me.

For his flight she was on the ground with the camera. The instructor told him, “You have to put your head inside and once you jump you put your head outside.” When he did that he knocked his glasses off. They tumbled 2,000 feet through the air into the jungle. “There is a little monkey that has his glasses somewhere,” Montaine says. Then to top it off, the instructor, seeing Montaine filming, got airshowitis, tightened his turn, and hit the side of the beach with the wing. “I am there with the camera,” she says, “and all the sudden we see ‘Bang!’ just like a cartoon.”

That same year, back in the States they began a serious search for a new location. “Daniel and I always sort of dreamed of having our own FBO. We really wanted our own place. In New York we had the school, but we didn’t have a shop. We wanted a place that looked professional, and all that. New York was too expensive.”

Enroute to a Miami show, in October of ’91, they visited Suzanne and Steve Oliver, borrowed a car and started to search the state. “We wanted to be close to a big metropolitan area, on an airport where we can have an aerobatic box, hotels nearby, a restaurant on the field and good weather.” Rick Grissom suggested they look at Flagler County Airport in Bunnell, Florida. It was love at first sight--good runways, good people, a decent restaurant on the field and motels nearby.

They have everything grouped together—school, shop, office, lounge. Out front there is a picnic table with a big ashtray for Daniel. The aerobatic box is within easy sight of it. He can sit there and do what he loves the most—watching, critiquing, teaching.

They both love teaching. Many of their friends stop in early in the spring for help. “Daniel gives a lot,” Montaine says. “Sometimes he sees an air show performer—he doesn’t do it as much now, because people send you away easily—but at the beginning, he would go and debrief them on everything. ‘You could do this and you could improve that.’ Some people really took it right and improved. Some people sent him to hell.

“I’d say, ‘You’re giving away all our secrets.’

“He’d say, ‘So? We’ve learned how to do this. Why don’t we tell the other people?’ He is very giving. He still enjoys training people from the ground, watching and helping them.”

When he was instructing in the military he had a special niche. He was The Last Resort. “In the military they had to succeed. If they didn’t they were out. All the cadet students were officers, so they had to graduate from flying. When students were not doing well the other instructors sent them to Daniel. If there was anything that could be done with those students, he was the one that could do it.” Daniel says he saved quite a few.

All of us who have flown in their box and have been critiqued by Daniel would agree with that! We would also say they share the passion, purpose, camaraderie and joy Montaine looked for when she began to fly.

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