Way up there: Nevada County’s Frank Kerner is an adrenaline junkie, but his wife Diane married him anyway
Folks in the neighborhood weren’t quite sure what they were seeing when Frank Kerner first flew by in his church clothes, hanging by his armpits, above the pastures of Zelienople, Pennsylvania.
It was the early 1970s, and Frank, a lover of model airplanes, decided one day he’d try building a glider big enough to lift himself off the ground.
“I’d watched a movie about the Wright Brothers,” he said. “I learned about their early designs and decided I’d copy them a little bit.”
Still in his 20s, Frank had a cash flow problem, which meant the materials for his first glider would have to be affordable. So he bolted a frame together made from lawn chair tubing and taped a clear plastic tarp to the frame using double-stick carpet tape.
“It held on there pretty good,” he said.
Then he added steel cables to brace the wings and turnbuckles to adjust the tension. There was a big rudder on the back, which Frank steered with his right hand using a stick. Using a cable in his left hand, he could control the ailerons on the tip of the wings, enabling him to bank, lift, or drop the aircraft at will. He taped foam rubber to the rails to minimize the pain of hanging by his armpits.
People thought he was crazy.
“That first flight was amazing,” he said. “I didn’t even have to run — I just walked forward and the wind picked me up. I was wearing my church clothes — except I took my dress shirt off and just wore a T-shirt.”
JUST OUT FOR A SUNDAY FLIGHT
But that first flight was all it took — Frank was hooked. Not long after, he moved to Simi Valley in Southern California, where hang gliding was quickly gaining in popularity. The predictable air currents and large hills made for optimum flying. Before long, Frank was out there with his hand-built glider every Sunday.
“In Simi Valley, I flew about 300 feet high for the first time,” he said. “I just wanted to do it — I didn’t care about the danger. I just wanted to fly.”
At the end of each flight, Frank would streamline the design of his homemade glider. With small tweaks here and there — he found he could make his model a smoother, more maneuverable aircraft.
In 1977, Frank moved to Nevada County, having landed a job with the Grass Valley Group, working on the electric plating of circuit boards. Much to his delight, several co-workers shared his love of flying and owned “up-to-date” hang gliders.
“So I bought me one,” he said. “I used to like to fly in Reno and up into the American River canyon near the Foresthill Bridge.”
‘MAGNIFICENT MAN IN A FLYING MACHINE’
In 1980, Frank took the plunge and bought an ultralight, which boasted a 33-foot wing span and a 48-horsepower engine. Remarkably, it could climb up to 1,000 feet a minute. Frank was in heaven, as he could fly high effortlessly above Lake Wildwood, Lake of the Pines, or low along the winding Yuba River, just 40 feet or so above the water.
“Over the years, I’ve only had a couple of ultralight accidents — they were my fault,” he said with a casual laugh. “I guess I’m lucky to be alive.”
Distracted by an onlooker before takeoff, Frank once left the ground forgetting to buckle his seat belt, which dangled off the back of his seat. Some 200 to 300 feet in the air he saw fishermen on the Yuba River staring at him in horror as bits of the propeller flew in all directions, killing the engine. Thanks to his extraordinary skill, he was able to glide down and land safely on a sand bar next to the river. Unbelievably, stories like this don’t keep Frank from flying.
“I wish he would call it a day, you know — ‘Been there, done that,’” said Frank’s wife, Diane, of 24 years. “He’s my magnificent man in a flying machine, but now I wish he’d leave it alone.”
Today, retired and turning 75 this month, Frank says he is eager to get back in the air this spring after taking time out for much-needed eye surgery, which repaired a detached retina.
“These days I can just go out and load the folded ultralight into my van and take off not too far from home,” he said. “The first time that glider lifted me off the ground years ago it was like a dream come true. That feeling never changes.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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