(On the Flying-Flea’s Trail)"

    by Paul Pontois

    A mythical moment for the reader of Mignet’s book "Le Sport de l’Air", The Sport of the Air, is the first takeoff of his HM-14 on September 10, 1933. A truly glorious moment is the first real round trip of this same machine, in the afternoon of November 8, 1933.

    The legendary place for these achievements was the "petit bois de bouleau", the little birch wood, where Mignet had camped during 450 nights in three years, suffering torrid summers and harsh winters. From 1931 to 1933, Henri commuted between the Vaugirard quarter in Paris where he built the various versions of the Pou in a workshop lent by Albert and Pierre Brissaut, and a large piece of land 200 km North-East of the capital which was put at his disposal by Marc Morizet.

    For me, as well as for most of my fellows pouducielists, this place is what Troy is to an archeologist, a legendary site. However, in June 2000, the matter was shown to me under a different light, thanks to a young and enthusiastic couple, Béatrice and Gilbert Lemoine.

    I was in Dunes, near Agen in the Southwest of France for the Pou meeting, held every year in June. An endless rain, the worse in the area since 1934, encouraged visitors to stay under the large hangar. "Hangar flying" replaced flying. Old friends were taking up with each other again. Many builders and pilots, who had never met before, made friends. Sitting at a large table covered with maps, photographs and sketches, and passionately talking to the audience, Beatrice and Gilbert were relating their pilgrimage to the little birch wood, and how they discerned its precise location. So many people were interested in their discussion that I could hardly speak with them, and I went back home hungry for more.

    I could not refrain from sending them a letter and their documented response came after a few weeks.

    Last Winter, I already had it in mind to translate Beatrice and Gilbert’s text for the English speaking pouducielists, but some family obligations delayed my plans. By pure luck they also brought me to stay a few days in Chantilly, North of Paris and not so far from Soissons. The little birch wood came back to my mind and, on a misty morning, my wife Marie and I started our journey.

    The smiling plains, hedges and orderly forests of the "Ile De France" were progressively replaced with an alternation of wild bushy woodlands and extensive cultivated fields of wheat and sugar beets for miles. The medieval cathedral of Soissons was overlooking the expanse. Then, the country became undulating, cut by scrubby and swampy valleys. We were just a few miles from "Le Chemin Des Dames" where some of the fiercest fights of WW1 took place. There, just 15 years after the end of hostilities in a ravaged country, Henri Mignet put up his tent. His was a solitary two years stay, under difficult and sometimes extreme conditions, haunted by the ultimate goal of his life, the discovery of a really safe aircraft formula. He can be compared to the ancient hermits who were taking refuge in the desert to discover the finality of life.

    Thanks to Beatrice and Gilbert, the exact location of the airstrip was easy to find. In front of this place loaded with history, I was deeply moved.

    Some time ago, I discussed about this trip with Pierre Mignet over the phone. He made the same journey several times and was happy enough to find some witnesses of the first flight. He could even chat with an old man who, when he was a young boy, helped Henri Mignet to push the HM-14 back to the camp.

    What I will retain of this site is the unreal misty atmosphere of the surrounding country, which was for sure still more marked in Mignet’s time, when the scars of the war were still apparent and some of the villages still lay in ruins.

    In spite of this, Mignet did like this gloomy place, where he suffered and finally won, but after the victory, he wanted to turn over a new leaf. As he wrote in the Book:

    What am I doing here, in the middle of this frozen plain? In 48 hours, I will enjoy the sweet pleasures of my cozy and warm home. The game is over! I am leaving!

    Farewell, my dear little Birch Wood, farewell!

    I will be forever grateful to Beatrice and Gilbert for giving me the idea to live this unique experience, on their trail!

    Here are the essentials of their story that they titled "Sur Les Traces du Pou du Ciel (On the Flying-Flea’s trail)".

    Paul Pontois

    (819) 228 3159

    English text checked by Chris Frank


    (On the Flying-Flea’s Trail)

    by Béatrice and Gilbert Lemoine

    translated by Paul Pontois

    Note: the numbered references in the text correspond to the numbers on the maps and photograph that accompany this piece.

    Dedication by Pierre Mignet

    A noble passion, a thorough and touching investigation into the first achievements of the old Flying-Flea…

    The two authors-accomplices’ research honors our dear old Patron Saint and I am very grateful to them.

    In Dunes, on the 10th of June 2000.

    Pierre Mignet

    Henri Mignet wrote in his Camping Book (Le Sport de l’air, 1934-1994, p. 190):

    8 September 1933:

    The plain of Beaurepaire, located in the triangle Vailly-Condé-Chassemy, is the place where I put up my tent for the third time. My caravan is back, in the middle of the plain, in the Birch Wood…The country’s loneliness and solitude… the hard life is starting.

    We drove two times round the triangle formed by the 3 villages Vailly-Chassemy-Condé, and we finally found the place. In front of us stretches out, without a doubt, the Beaurepaire plain! Everywhere else, are just dense woodlands and marshes. Here is the only place where le Patron Saint could have set up his camp. The wheat field and the grassy ground, split by a dirt track, measure together more than 600 meters (2000 feet) (9,10). An ideal landing strip. We reached the end of our journey. Here the Flying-Fleas made its first steps…or…more exactly, its first flights! The beginning of a long story in the aviation history!


    Here below are the pages from Henri Mignet’s Book "Le Sport De L’Air", in which the Patron Saint relates the first round trip he made over the country around the "Little Birch Wood". The geographic landmarks are underlined.

    I move off to the East, take off correctly and pull the stick. I am 50 feet high. There is still time to land if I want to. No, let’s go!

    I do not want to climb too fast, I let the Pou do its way.

    Vailly, the road (1), the power lines (2), the canal (3), the river (4), marshes (5) …. There is no place to land if…I aim at the towpath, just in case…I have an eye on the airspeed and on the R.P.M. I listen to the engine sound, I have no time to worry about the ground. This pass near Vailly between two plateaus more than 300 feet high seems to be so long!

    Well, I am passing over the plateaus by a narrow margin. Propeller R.P.M: 1400, speed: 50 mph, The gearbox axis is pointed to the sky!

    The plateaus disappear behind me, the relief becomes indistinct. Not a breath of wind in the air as on the ground, I am suspended in a green crystal, the sun is low on the horizon. The shadow of my head reflects on the windshield, surrounded by a red halo.

    I should be high enough to turn. Let’s see… stick on the left, just a little bit, the wing slightly leans down. I tilt the stick a little more and I feel the weight of my body over a drop. I can see vertically without leaning out. This excess of visibility scares me a little. I pass just over a village, whose houses are grouped around a pointed church steeple and surrounded by small gardens…. Don’t look at it, you fool! Keeping the speed, always tilted, I gently pull on the stick. One wing below the horizon, the other one high in the sky, I turn 180 degrees. A rather long journey Westwards leads me in sight of Soissons (6); the familiar monuments and buildings of the city emerge from the mist, under the sun’s red disk. The air seems to be adorned with a pink blur. It is a very ethereal feeling. I feel as secure as if I was a passenger in my plane…

    Gosh! I am alone aboard! No messing about! A sudden feeling of anguish grips me. Very gently, I push, pull, and stir the stick. Docile and obedient, the Flying-Flea responds to my orders. My mind is put at ease again.

    By the way, what is my altitude? The altimeter is in the right pocket of my jacket. A problem! How to draw it out with my left hand without moving my right arm? Slowly, slowly, here it is! 1400 feet! I would not have believed it!

    I lean overboard to look at the ground. The altitude feeling in a Pou and in a conventional aircraft is quite different.

    My plain is behind me. A dark square: the birch wood (7), a white dot: my tent. A quick glance at my bed, my table, my notebook, my radio-set, my tool-box.. And I realize that I am so close and in the same time so far away. Up in the sky, with the engine roaring and the wind of the speed, it seems to me that flying down will be very difficult.

    A second steep turn, like a master! It is a real pleasure to turn with this plane!, but, not too steep! Stick to the right. The Flying-Flea comes back to the horizontal as if it was pulled back by a return spring. What energy!

    I do it once more.

    The Birch Wood is now in front of me, 2.5 miles below the engine…. I fly over Missy-sur-Aisne and its brand new church tower (8).

    I throttle down to 1,000 RPM. At this speed, the propeller becomes "transparent". I sink below the level of the plateaus. I have the clear feeling to leave the sky and to plunge into the dark. Although the valley is rather wide, it looks like a corridor in the twilight. I pass Condé, Cirry, and the Vesle River, curled like a lace. The poplars near my strip are 100 feet below my wings. Their last little yellow leaves, at the tip of their branches, shiver to the light evening breeze. Are they clapping at me? My final approach is now less steep, I round out. I am gliding down slowly, keeping some engine, as I am very short. A small push on the throttle. The engine regains power. 60 mph at less than a wingspan above the ground. A "very speedy" feeling.

    I stop the engine and gently touch down, next to the Little Birch Wood.

    Original Dedication by Pierre Mignet

    MIGNET in Chicagoland (from Pierre MIGNET June 2001)

    May 9, 1937 MIGNETS lived 7743 N Paulina Street

    July 4, 1937 Frank EASTON arrived to work with H MIGNET

    June 13, 1937 MIFNETS moved to 7632 N Marchfield Ave (Mdm TOPAL)

    August 16, 1937 First Flight of HM20

    October 3, 1937 ?

    November 22, 1937 First Flight HM21 at CURTISFIELD (later Glenview Naval Air Base)

    June 3, 1938 First Flight HM23 (fuselage made from tubes)

    July 29, 1938 ? Frank Easton on HM23

    If anybody has more information on the MIGNET PALWAUKEE YEARS, please contact POU RENEW.