Following a dream

Mike Eagan (right) poses with Rob Ericson who gave him flying lessons at the Manistee Blacker Airport to help him earn his pilot's license. (Courtesy photo)

Mike Eagan (right) poses with Rob Ericson who gave him flying lessons at the Manistee Blacker Airport to help him earn his pilot’s license. (Courtesy photo)

Area band director achieves lifelong ambition to become a licensed pilot

MANISTEE — Most people recall days as a child sitting in a living room or classroom and having their mind drift off into a dream about something they would love to do in life.

Some people get the opportunity to live out those dreams, while for others it just remains a  memory stuck in some far recess of their mind. Mike Eagan remembers those days of his youth quite vividly when he recalls his mind drifting off, thinking about becoming a pilot.

Before a plane takes off there is a series of steps that need to be followed. Local pilot Mike Eagan said he enjoys every step of the process since acquiring his pilot license. Eagan recently fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a pilot.  (Courtesy photo)

Before a plane takes off there is a series of steps that need to be followed. Local pilot Mike Eagan said he enjoys every step of the process since acquiring his pilot license. Eagan recently fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a pilot. (Courtesy photo)

Now 60 years old and a very successful band director at Benzie Central Schools, the Manistee resident who is the husband of Manistee Area Public Schools Director of Bands Cynthia Swan-Eagan said he was hooked on flying at an early age. It was a dream that just a few short years ago turned into reality for him.

“I loved airplanes when I was kid,” he said. “I would watch the television shows and the space flights. In the third grade I got fascinated with the Wright brothers and those frail little machines they flew on.”

He said it prompted  many drawings as a child and a desire to read every book on airplanes he found.

“There wasn’t a lot of books back then and it was unlike today when we can just go on a computer and look them up,” he said.

Eagan said his family members knew about his love of airplanes, and they encouraged him.

“When I was in junior high my uncle got me a junior membership in the experimental aircraft association,” he said. “I started getting these magazines and it was something I read all through high school. However, I didn’t grow up in an aviation family or have the opportunity to be around airplanes, so my interest just kind of sat there.”

When he reached his senior year of high school  the fascination still stuck with him to the point of creating a hand glider that would be pulled behind a boat to put him flying in the air.

“The first one just sank,” he said with the laugh. “On the second one I did a little  bit of research and came up with something that would sit in the water at the right dynamic. I was a good enough water skier to get up on the back of that thing, but didn’t realize it was going to take some skill to get up on the back of that thing.”

Eagan said as soon at the boat hit the right speed it flipped over and crashed dumping him in the water. However, it didn’t deter him from trying again.

“This time I got it to fly and I did that for several years, but all I was doing was flying at the end of a tow rope 20 to 30 feet in the air,” he said.

After that experience Eagan said a malady hit him that afflicts most people who love to dream about things — life happened.

“I went to college and my profession kicked in and everything just kind of went dormant, and I didn’t read anything about it,” he said. “It wasn’t until my 30s when there was a teacher at a school where I was teaching whose husband had a minor connection with the airport.”

Eagan said he heard they were giving flying lessons, and he took some on a little Piper that included flying solo on one occasion. However, to earn his licence he was faced with a daunting amount of things to learn for all the tests. Tossed on top of that was the demands of working full-time as a band director.

“I figured that was about it for my flying days,” he said.

It was in an ironic twist of fate that brought him back to pursue the dream of getting his flying license.

“About seven or eight years ago I was assigned a lunchroom detention hall at Benzie Central which meant I just sat there for 30 minutes watching kids who hadn’t done their homework,” he said. “It was mind numbing as I wanted something to do during that time.

It was almost at the same time when he spotted a pilot test prep book in a book store. He said after purchasing the book the realization hit that it contained everything he needed to do the book work portion of getting his pilot’s license.

“That book had everything I need to know in a logical format, so I had a built in 30 minutes every day to study it,” he said. “Pretty soon I was getting good at it. But I still needed the lessons.”

Eagan said he was looking at obtaining the light sport ( based on weight of plane and can’t fly at night) rating that was available in the early 2000s.

“The only thing was the only place I could get lessons on that was in Cadillac, which was hard to do when I lived in Manistee and worked in Benzie,” he said. “One day I found a flight school in Florida that was offering concentrated course in it. You get there and have one instructor, and it was possible to finish the license in two or three weeks if you did your homework.”

He said he went down in the summer to Winter Haven, Fla., and the experiences was a good one. All the studying helped him pass the written test and move on to flying.

“My instructor was a retired Air Force colonel from New Hampshire, and after taking the written test we pretty much just flew for the next couple weeks,” he said. “We were either in the air or sitting at the table doing math that you have to do to fly. I got a sports pilot certification.”

However, he said the downside was the only plane in this area that fit that certification was an old 1946 Piper Cub in Cadillac. So it was back to the drawing board, but once again fate was in his favor.

“I thought about buying a light sport plane and went to the Manistee airport to ask about hanger space and that was when I met Rob Ericson who is a flight instructor,” he said. “One thing led to another, and I started studying for the full pilot’s license.”

Mike Eagan goes over his pre-flight checklist before preparing to take a flight out of the Manistee Blacker Airport. Eagan earned his pilot's license a few years ago fulfilling a life long ambition to learn to fly.  (Courtesy photo)

Mike Eagan goes over his pre-flight checklist before preparing to take a flight out of the Manistee Blacker Airport. Eagan earned his pilot’s license a few years ago fulfilling a life long ambition to learn to fly. (Courtesy photo)

That included working on a Cessna plane and before long he took the written test and scored a perfect 100 percent. He said the test costs $167, but he learned after that it is free if you have perfect score.

“I was about 57 years old at the time of passing the full private license,” he said. “That was kind of emotional as that little third grader drawing those pictures of the Wright brothers’ planes came back with a certificate in his pocket and said to my wife, ‘Hey, Cindy, let’s go for ride.'”

Eagan can’t help but laugh about that first ride with his new license.

“We got up on a Saturday morning and I said let’s fly someplace for breakfast because how cool would that be,” he laughed. “So we got in the plane and made the long flight to Ludington to eat at Big Boy.”

Since he started flying, Eagan said it has been a great stress release for him. He said even the pre-flight routine before he takes off is something he finds enjoyable.

“It is great to get up there and I forget about everything when I am flying,” he said. “When you go down that runway you can feel when that plane is ready to fly and it is just feels wonderful. Just taking a flight up the coast or going along the Manistee River and watching people fish. I tell people I don’t like to fly — I love to fly.”

Eagan said when he retires he hopes to do more flying. For now he enjoys the level he is at and the opportunity to pursue something he enjoys doing.

But more importantly it is the look of that third grader coming back over his face when he talks about it. It may have taken him many years to reach this point, but he never stopped following that dream that started in elementary school.

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Posted by Ken Grabowski

Ken is News Advocate’s education reporter. He coordinates coverage for all Manistee County schools and West Shore Community College. He can be reached by phone at (231) 398-3125 or by email at kgrabowski@pioneergroup.com.

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