Heart Attack Frank

[In July, 2000 Linda and Rick took a ride on Frank's plane.  Linda subsequently penned this letter about the experience.
This turned out to be the last time GSP's would have this opportunity as Frank passed away March 23, 2001]

July 2000    Dear Mom and Dad --

Arial view of New River GorgeI forget which of our camp-mates was the first to whom I mentioned it. "Are there really $5 airplane rides somewhere around here?!"

The answer was a knowing, skeptical look and "yeah, you're talking about 'Heart-Attack Frank.' I can't believe he's not dead yet. He's gotta be about a hundred by now."

And so on, throughout the week other members of our (becoming enormous) group responded with, well, far-less-than-positive remarks. "You're taking your life in your hands...." "Oh yeah, right, better take along some extra shorts." "Man, some of the group went on that ride years ago. That man is evil. He tries to terrify you."

Locally they call him "Five-dollar Frank" and "Flying Frank Thomas." The plain, homemade (by Frank himself most likely), tri-fold advertisement brochure lends support to the suspicion that this man is way out of the ordinary. He's a man with a mission and that mission is to fly, fly passengers up and down a short stretch of the New River Gorge for $5. He's been doing it for a very long time. You can get a slightly longer trip -- almost 20 minutes -- for $10.

"Fayetteville Airport" is a private strip, blacktop. Frank owns it. He's written two books; both of them I believe back in the 60s and 70s. "It Is This Way With Men Who Fly," and "Just Like a Preacher with the Calling." He's 79 now.

Sunday morning July 2 we'd been in West Virginia at Ray's Place Campground for 5 days. The climax of the vacation, the Lower New GSP Raft Trip, was coming up tomorrow. We'd been hiking, biking, horseback riding, hiking and biking some more, and ducky-ing. (The ducky trip is a slightly tamer -- usually -- whitewater excursion than the rafting trip, and takes place on the slightly tamer -- usually -- Upper New. About 25 of the GSP group, including Rick and India, did the ducky trip on Saturday. Duckies are inflatable craft which look slightly like a kayak and are paddled with a double-blade paddle as are kayaks. Most duckies are single-person craft, but there are doubles as well, commonly used by a parent with a very young child. The minimum age is 7.)

In the shower house Sunday mid-morning I tried once more, mentioning to Cherre Treece that the idea of that $5 airplane ride was still coming back and coming back. She said "Oh! Jeff and I went on that ride several years ago and we loved it!"

OK, I was definitely going now! I wasn't happy about it, however. I'm a terrible wimp about these things and I was so afraid that Rick and I together were soooo heavy that we'd probably crash the airplane, so it was just supposed to be the two of us. Nursing my selfish terror I was adamant that there would be no inviting India or anybody else to come along. As we were about to leave, Rick mentioned our intention to Kim Strang, a small, very athletic and adventurous woman in her mid thirties, and she squealed (sorry Kim, you really did pretty much squeal) "Ohhh, can I go WITH YOU!!!?" Rick said "Well sure!" (Well, what was he supposed to say, I guess. I was furious and mortified for a little while, even though I knew, and told him, that I'd get over it. If we lived, anyway.)

We found the tiny airport easily -- not impressive except in its decrepitude -- rusty old corrugated steel arch barn with ramshackle wooden hangars near by. We parked as Frank landed and a man and woman came back to their car. They said "It was wonderful!" (People who've landed safely always say that!) Frank was already taking off again with new passengers. And there were two young men waiting. Apparently a longer waiting line is quite common.

There were two fellows minding the business while Frank was in the air. Dale, around 45, whom we understand to be Frank's son (although Frank never married or had children, according to his books), and a younger fellow whose name we never learned. Dale was a real sight as "airport manager." He wore absolutely nothing but short denim cutoffs, was as dark brown as a white man gets, with beard and long ponytail. He told us stories, saw us around the "museum" and prevented whatever fears and worries we might be having from becoming intolerable. One of my favorite lines from Dale's chatter was "I've been a raft guide for years, do a lot of free-lance and private trips, and people always ask me how a person gets to be a raft guide. It's the same for a lot of river guides; you start out as a bus driver, get two DUIs, and then become a guide!"

Kim and Rick are both fairly well acquainted with small aircraft. Kim's job writing navigation-related software puts her in small (hi-tech, state-of-the-art) aircraft frequently (with young, robust test pilots), and Rick's dad Dick has flown and owned small airplanes off and on most of his life. Either Rick or Kim could probably have flown the little four-seater Cessna (ca. 1972?) into which we were about to climb. However, neither one of them could have taken off or landed. (We found afterward that we'd all been secretly thinking of emergency plans in case Frank's time to meet his Creator came before we touched down.....)

When our turn came to board, Rick and I were directed into the small back seat and Kim up front with Frank. Frank never left the plane, but made hand signals to Dale. Right thumb downward into curled left fingers (gas). Right hand tipping imaginary cup to lips (coffee). Fingers touching, then opening outward (open the doors). Frank explained these signals and more when we asked. There's a signal for "troublemaker," anything from a drunken idiot to an FAA official! We found out after our ride that the unabridged version of the door-open signal is "get out the other plane, this one's starting to get hot."

Dale brought the gas and Frank said to him "only about half that can; this is a pretty heavy load and I don't want to over-weight her." Frank is mostly deaf and appears to be rather feeble. He's very thin, somewhat tall, and his hands shake a bit. I think he probably doesn't tease as much as he used to, but we had to figure he was teasing when he said that about the gasoline. I suspect even the feebleness is at least part acting.

It took a couple of tries, but the prop finally started revolving. The little plane shook mightily, buzzing and ticking and humming from this place and that. We made sure the doors were locked because Dale had told us a story about one popping open. We taxied to the cul-de-sac end of the blacktop runway, turned around, and were off.


It was terrifying, exhilarating, and heavenly. Frank turns off his hearing aids as soon as the engine really kicks in, and after that he'll say something once in a while, point to the 8,000-year-old rock formation he admires, identify Jump Rock, the old Kaymoor Mine buildings, the Railroad Bridge... but in general there's not much communicating with him.

Our max height was about 800 feet. We saw hundreds of rafts on the river, could just about count the people. We watched them paddle through tiny rapids, and we stared out endlessly at the glorious work of wonder which is the New River Gorge.

Up, down, around, and back up and down. We used a whole role of film. Eventually Frank leaned over to Kim and and softly said "I'd really like to go home now but I can't remember where that little airport is." I'm thinking man, old people can really become masters of that deadpan delivery.... at least I hope he's joking.

All through the flight I had the impression that Frank could probably do this in his sleep, that he was thousands-of-flights familiar with any up- or down-draft the gorge could throw at him. The ride was a little bumpy, sure, plenty of that that weightless-stomach feeling we used to call "buttoning your belly button" with the kids when they were little, and Frank's hands do tremble a bit as he lightly maneuvers the controls. But I think none of us have any doubts that this man knows what he's doing better than most.

The cul-de-sac of the runway came into view and while he landed us as smoothly as could be asked, he picked up his chatter a bit with grousing about Al Gore, who is in his opinion the greater of two evils, and the unrelated topic of how "this whole thing is gonna end, real soon." (Can't get parts for the old planes anymore, and can't give cheap rides in a new one because they cost hundreds of k$.) As he taxied into the grass near the fence Dale was giving the same signal he had when we were the group waiting. Both hands showing three fingers, then both hands with five, repeat several times until he knew Frank had seen it. (Three passengers for the $10 ride.) Frank signalled for gas, oil, and coffee. The other plane was out near the runway but apparently not going up on just the next flight.

We shook his hand, thanked him, took a few photos, and as we walked away Kim said in a low but insistent tone "That was the scariest thing I've ever done. I want tequila!" This from a woman who has done about half or more of the scariest things available, multiple times. (She didn't really want tequila, but the the previous night had been Dr. Ed's tequila lecture and tasting in our camp. Rick and I caught part of the lecture but passed on the tasting -- the table was already full of tasters, including Kim. Ed brought quite a number of fine tequilas, photos, and a lot of history and geography from Mexico.)

Rick and Kim ran to the museum/barn and bought the "It Is This Way..." book ($10), we ran back to the plane in time to get both copies autographed, and took a few more photos with Frank. As Dale readied our camera and Rick came to join us while Frank stood hugging me on one side and Kim on the other, Frank said "Aw, what do we need him for?" Then he got back in the plane and took off with the new passengers. He must give 30 - 35 rides on a busy day, and I don't think he takes a day off very often.

I am soooo glad we did it, glad I kept fishing for encouragement until I found a little. I would've come back here and been irritated at myself all year if I hadn't. And back at the camp that day, as we told folks of our trip, numerous people said "Oh Kim! You finally did it?!! You've been talking about that for so many years!" I was ecstatic that the three of us had done it together. As Rick has pointed out, the sharing of the experiences is what makes this group get-together the wonderful event it is.

So, see you later, Love,

PS, will add more pictures when they're developed, and let you know. XOXOXO