Flying With Five Dollar Frank in the New River Gorge
By Ashley Thomas The New River Gorge Bridge is an amazing structure. It's impressive from any angle, but one man had a bird’s eye view of it for a lot of years and shared it with anyone willing to hop in his plane. Yes, I'm talking about Frank Thomas, known to most in these parts simply as “Five Dollar Frank.”
Frank’s moniker came from the $5 airplane rides he offered from the Fayette Airport for over 60 years. His passion for flying was unequaled, and it was rumored he had more logged flight hours than any pilot in the US. This isn’t hard to believe, as Frank was always up flying before the sun and he flew until he almost couldn't see to land.
It’s hard to imagine just how many people took his 15-minute flight over the New River Gorge, but a quick, modest calculation says it’s probably well over 200,000. He even taught over 1,000 people to fly. I got to fly with him more than 20 times.
Just Being Frank
If you never got the chance to fly with Frank, you missed one of the most enjoyable (and at times scary), trips you could take in a Cessna 172. Even into his 70's, Frank was a true entertainer. Extremely well-versed in the classic poets, he would occasionally recite their works during the flight. He even wrote a couple poetry books himself.
You could tell from the look of Frank’s hangar that he was a practical joker. It was adorned with a makeshift coffin with a rubber snake inside and car horn attached to the lid that would sound off when opened. This was just to get your heart ready for the flight you were about to take. There was also what appeared to be an electric chair in the hangar as well. All of this was part of his show.
Once you were in the air, Frank knew he had you. From tapping on the gas gauge to pretending he could hear the plane making weird sounds, you never knew what Frank was going to do next. He had a mischievous side but was so serious when he was pulling your leg, you never knew if he was joking or not.
I remember once telling him I wanted to get a better look at the rapids. He was quick to oblige by turning the plane directly up on its side so my view was directly at the river. This wouldn't have been terribly bad if my door hadn't flown open in the process and left me hanging in the seat looking 1,500 feet straight down at the water. “Was that a good enough view for ya”, he asked as I was hanging on for dear life. I could still see a slight smile on his face when we finally landed and I shakily left the plane.
Frank spent most of his life in a plane. He took great pleasure in showing people the beauty of the Gorge and the wonder of the Bridge from high up above. And he did it just because he loved it. Frank Thomas was just like the New River Gorge Bridge: one of a kind.
What’s your Five Dollar Frank story?