Soaring like a great bird through the silence of space thousands of feet above earth, Frank Gillette hears only the sound of rushing wind over his face and body as he observes the mountains, rivers, farm ground and desert below. His body suspended like a cocoon from the frame of his hang glider, flying has been Frank’s all-consuming lifetime sport. At age 83, he still says, “The thrill is like no other.”
Raised in the Declo area of Southern Idaho, Gillette was already considered a successful sugar beet and potato farmer before he discovered his passion for flying. Recognized as one of Amalgamated Sugar Company’s outstanding growers during his farming years, Gillette was known for his ability to understand and promote the farming industry. He was also an innovator. With his uncanny ability to lead, Gillette has inspired many to follow his example in the farming industry, as well as training hundreds of aviators in the art of flying.
Once he learned to fly, he incorporated the sport into his business by observing his crops, irrigation and even employees from the air. Using an ultralight, he created a spray rig attaching it under the wings to spray for weeds. Flying became a fascinating and integral part of his life.
Gillette was introduced to hang gliding in his 40s while he was an instructor at Beaver Mountain ski resort in Utah. He saw a man on skis take off from the slopes on a self-made glider made of Dacron and tubing. The skier circled around and landed back on the slopes. Gillete was immediately taken with the ability to soar freely above the trees. Meeting up with the man, he was soon doing his own flying after getting instructions on how to make the glider.
“To see what a bird sees and experience that freedom” is something that drives Gillete to do it again and again. “I am totally consumed,” he said. His wife, Lorna, has been by his side throughout his passionate exodus through the skies. Often when she suggested they go somewhere, he always countered with, “Let me look at the weather first.” If it were a good thermal day (currents of warm air rising through cooler air) he put flying first.
Now that he’s 83 and his flying has slowed down a little, he reflects back over 40 years in the air. As a certified pilot and an instructor of hang gliding and paragliding, he quipped to his wife, “Why didn’t you leave me?” She replied good-naturedly, “Because I did my own thing.”
At first she followed him in the chase car but eventually turned it over to someone else. “I’d worry about him getting hurt,” she said, “but eventually I realized I couldn’t ruin my life while he was up there having fun.” She busied herself taking care of their children and running the businesses she’d started.
Hang gliding introduced Gillette to the world of building ultralights, a small aircraft with an open cockpit. He soon earned his pilot’s license, built his own small plane and began instructing others to fly. Ten years after his discovery of hang gliding, Gillette took up paragliding and became an expert at it as well as becoming a certified instructor to teach others. He notes that some of his best flying came after he was 60 years old.
In his first years of hang gliding, he discovered a perfect thermal at the base of the Albion Mountains near his farm in Southern Idaho. There he learned to perfect his skills. He and Lorna eventually purchased the hillside and built a home on it. The 500 vertical foot rise behind his new home created the perfect launching and landing pad for hang gliding and paragliding.
Ultimately their back yard became a flight school for hundreds of students as they took off and landed on the grassy slope alongside his home. Frank and Lorna hosted several meets that would gather many flying enthusiast and their families for a day of flying and a steak cook out.
In 1993, at age 63, Gillette set a long distance record for hang gliding, flying 162 miles from King Mountain near Arco to Anaconda, Montana. He spent 7 1/2 hours in the air. He describes it as, “The greatest flight of my life.” Flying along the Lost River Range and following the Salmon River, he lifted over the Bitterroot Mountains and across the Continental Divide, where flew into Montana, over Big Hole Basin and touching down outside of Anaconda. He held that record for over 10 years.
Gillette says he tried to teach his children to hang and paraglide, but after several bad landings and a couple of broken bones, their mother interceded. But he’s now teaching his 14-year-old grandson, who has an intense desire to fly.
One of Gillette’s most frightening experiences occurred while flying a hang glider with a friend in the Southern Butte area. A large storm cloud caught them suspended in their hang gliders, sucking them up into the center of its rising vortex of warm air. His friend released his emergency chute in hopes of dropping down out of the cloud, but the air lift was so great they both continued to rise. The air became colder and moist, and like a giant boiling pot they found themselves spilling over the top of the great cloud at nearly 20,000 feet where they looked down on the desert far below. Ice covered their eyelashes, eyebrows and gear. The frames of their hang gliders were coated with ice. “We were lucky to come out alive,” he said.
While hang gliding and paragliding are considered dangerous sports, Gillette has always put safety first. In 40 years he’s only had two serious accidents. Being a regional director for the United States Hang Gliding Association and a certified paraglide and hang glider instructor who has taught hundreds of people to fly, Gillette’s top priority is safety. “You can never be too safe,” he said.
To people interested in learning to fly, Gillette recommends seeking a certified instructor. “Know your potential and avoid getting into places you shouldn’t,” he said.
Gillette has flown all over the country, but says Southern Idaho is one of the best places for hang gliding and paragliding. Even as an octogenarian, his passion to fly is still there. He says his goal is “To fly as safely as I can for as long as I live.”