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A quiet glide into fame
Frank Brame left home at the age of 17 with $5 tucked in his pocket and instructions from his father to hop the train to Edmonton and go make his mark on the world.
On Sunday, May 19, the journey that Brame embarked on some 70 years ago reached yet another milestone, as the former Canadian soaring champion – think gliders – and aeronautical engineer became the fifth pilot inducted into the “Wall of Honor” at the Friday Harbor Airport’s museum of flight.
Those two events stand as bookends to a bigger story, nearly epic in its scope, both on the ground and in the air.
But it’s one that you’re unlikely to hear about from Brame himself. That’s where good friend and fellow aviator John Geyman steps in.
“He’s just a great guy, a quiet guy, and modest,” said Geyman, unofficial historian of San Juan Island Pilots Association and master of ceremonies of the Brame’s May 19 induction gathering. “And he has a great public-good attitude and has done a lot for this community that a lot of people probably don’t know about.”
Such as? Well, how about stints as a board member of Inter Island Medical Center – president of the board at the time when IIMC averted financial collapse by transforming itself into a public hospital district – and as a member of the senior services advisory council, and as an advisor to the Friday Harbor Port Commission and past president of the Pilots Association. And that’s just for starters.
In fact, it’s the 20-plus years of public service, even more so than his accomplishments in the field of aviation, which prompted the Pilots Association to pick Brame as its 2012 Wall of Honor inductee. As such, he joins such luminaries in local aviation as Roy Franklin, Marty Stewart and Dr. Malcolm Heath, last year’s Wall of Honor inductee.
Pilots Association President Mike Taylor says public service weighs heavily into the “matrix” when the selection committee considers candidates, and then makes its choice. Brame was a unanimous selection, Taylor said.
“He may be a quiet guy, but Frank has been a guiding force in island aviation for 25-plus years,” he said.
Born in 1924 and raised on a wheat farm near a small town in the Canadian province of Alberta, Brame got hooked early on by the flight bug. He figured those pilots flying over the family wheat fields, a Royal Air Force training school was located nearby, surely must be having a better time than he was, with the back-backing demands of working the farm.
“I knew right then that’s what I wanted to do,” Brame said.
After leaving the farm, Brame ended up at that academy but a disability of his left arm prevented him from becoming a pilot of traditional aircraft, but not a pilot altogether; more on that in a moment.
After a year at the RAF school, Brame, who would find his professional calling as an engineer, left to work on the Alaskan Highway project, and from there it was off to the Curtis Wright Technical Institute in southern California, where he graduated with honors. He also graduated with distinction from Cranfield University in England, which, according to Geyman, is equivalent academically in rigor and prestige to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Cal Tech in the U.S.
Eventually, Brame hooked up with Boeing and spent more than 20 years as an aeronautical engineer with the Seattle-area aviation company, and he and his wife, Sandra, made Lake Samammish their home before moving to San Juan full-time in 1987. Brame also has several inventions in aeronautical inventions and patents to his name, one of which provides pilots with advanced warning if a solid object, like a mountain face, is in their path.
While public service and professional prowess earn Brame plenty of props from friends and admirers, it’s his achievements in the cockpit of a glider that local pilots and aviation aficionados marvel at the most. He won the title of Canadian Gliding Champion in 1950 and six years later competed for Canada in the World Soaring Championship, hosted by France, where he finished 16th out 60 contestants.
Back in Friday Harbor, Geyman is still smitten by the thought of one of Brame’s greatest feats, spending what would be nearly an entire work day riding the thermals in the cockpit of a glider.
“Seven hours and 45 minutes,” he said. “It’s just remarkable.”
Poring over log books in preparation for the induction, Geyman, and fellow association member, Fred Schumacher (whom Brame describes as “my ministers of propaganda”), calculated that Brame piloted 58 different types of aircraft over the years, 27 of which did not have an engine (gliders).
Brame gave up piloting a couple of years ago. But not before joining an elite group of aviators known as the UFOs, or United Flying Octogenarians, a group whom Brame describes affectionately as a “fraternity of old farts.”
Nowadays, he flies as second in command with local pilot and friend Carlo Franciosi, who jokingly, one would surmise, told those assembled at the induction that he tells Brame “to sit back, be quiet and keep your feet off the front panel.”
While those who know him best may refer to him as a quiet man, Brame clearly recalls and won’t hesitate to share his memories of what it’s like to soar hundreds of feet up in the air for hours on end.
“It can be exhilarating and it can be peaceful,” he said. “It depends on the terrain. Man has always wanted to fly like the birds and
soaring is the closest we’ve been to it, literally. It’s so peaceful.”