Five dollar Frank and the poor man’s flying school

About 10 years ago, I stood on the grounds of the Fayette Airport (WV59) in Fayetteville, West Virginia. My father, uncle, and I were there to settle the estate of my grandmother, who had lived down the street for close to 80 years and passed at the age of 97. She had outlived my grandfather, the postmaster in that small town, by about 20 years. Small being relative, as Fayetteville has grown and has been home to the New River Gorge Bridge for many years, which now gives Fayetteville a bit of a destination feel.

New River Gorge Bridge
Fayetteville, West Virginia, is a quiet place, but the New River Gorge Bridge does bring some visitors now.

Out in the grass parking area on that warm summer day sat a friend that I had flown with many years prior. The airport guys called her Nita. Her tail number was N1TA, so it’s easy to see why the name applied. Grass grew up through her landing gear and the windows were a bit faded from time and weather. They told me they still fired her up on occasion to keep the parts moving. She was for sale and had very few takers in that area, due to her high time.

The reason that N1TA was special was that I had ridden in that airplane 20 years prior with her owner, Frank K. Thomas, a local flying legend who is commonly thought of as singlehandedly doing more for aviation in that part of the country than anyone could remember. “Five Dollar Frank” was his moniker, as he owned Thomas Flying Service and gave sightseeing tours of the area for $5. Each flight was a half hour, with his sister sitting beside the Esso gas pump next to the stone “terminal” waiting to gas up the plane upon arrival. Thousands flew with Frank over the years, and his name still brings a smile to those with history in the area.

Frank was born in 1921 and died in 2001 at the age of 79. During his life, he collected and composed flying stories about the area, and some not of the area. Like the time he flew a plane low and slow at crop height level on an island south of Florida so a couple of men could jump out unbeknownst to the locals. Government work, he called it. But that story is not in the book. He put his other recollection and experiences into a book entitled, It Is This Way With Men Who Fly. Published in 1978, I’m lucky to have a copy signed by the author.

Frank started his flying career in the early 1940s, with his first year as a flight instructor in 1942. Around 1946, he bought a patch of land in Fayetteville and single-handedly cleared it for a mountaintop airport at 1960 feet. Originally with 1100 feet of runway, over time he expanded it to 2200 with fuel and hangar facilities. He even added a cupola atop the warehouse/hangar as his “control tower.” His fleet expanded to four airplanes of the “Cub variety” as he called it.

It was one of those Cubs that introduced my father to flying in the late 1940s, in a Cub Cadet flying group. Little did Frank know, but the generations of flying through that introduction 70 years ago endures to this day. My father retired from the Air Force as a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross for actions over Southeast Asia. That introduction passed on to me and to my sons. I’m sure it did with the countless others who either flew with Frank or were taught by him.

Frank owned and managed the airport that he had built until his health no longer allowed. Even though a private airport, you would never had known by the level of flight activity in the area. He took no qualms as being the “poor man’s flying school.” He lived next to the field and told others he “hated to leave at night.” Weather permitting, he flew every day.

Frank Thomas
“Five dollar Frank” encouraged many pilots to start their journey.

He never married, and the story he tells from his book in a segment entitled, “Smooth Landing, 1942,” explains why. “My girlfriend finally agreed to an airplane ride. She was a lovely young lady and to me, it was very important to impress her with my skill. After a short flight, I knew that this must be the best landing I had ever made, and so it was. It was one of those with a lot of luck, so smoothly that you could hardly feel it had left the air and then it connected with the ground. Wanda then said, ‘Does it always hit that hard?’ This was the end of the courtship and that is why I am an old bachelor today.”

While not “landing” a potential bride that day, Frank told me he only made three good aircraft landings in his life, and that day must have been one of them.

But the story doesn’t end with Frank. The airport was purchased and still operates privately. Nita was eventually purchased, and after what may have been a short stint in Tennessee, appears back in her home state. I’m sure the new owner knows her history, and Nita has stories yet to tell.

We all have that same love of aviation. In my opinion, I’m a better pilot for being based at Deer Valley Airport. I can’t think of a better spot to be in. Perhaps, and just for a moment, WV59 with $5 Frank imparting wisdom on a beautiful West Virginia spring day.

His words said it best: “With all of this, there has never been a moment of doubt that flying was meant for me. May I justify this statement by saying that I am one person that is where he wishes to be, doing what he wants to do. I would not trade with any man. I have been through it all. At times I am tired, but not of flying. I have tried to walk and fly honorable in the vocation in which I have been called. With a will to continue, a never failing faith in God, I respectfully submit It Is This Way With Men Who Fly.”

4 Comments

  • Randy,

    I can’t begin to tell you how glad I am that you posted this piece.

    Back in the 70’s I was part of a small group of kayak paddlers who migrated from all over the south to paddle the New and Gauley rivers during the fall releases from the Summersville dam. We sometimes prevailed on Mr. Thomas to let us set up tents on the grass next to the runway. I’d pepper him with endless questions about the airfield, his 172 and what it was like to make a living flying airplanes. He never tired of answering them.

    You’ve brought back some wonderful memories – thank you.

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