Sean Franke, La Verne Chamber member and owner of Electronic Merchant Services, is somebody who literally glides through life.
About 25 times a year, he sets soar in his LS-3A glider for a four-or five-hour excursion, searching for thermal columns of warm air to lift his aircraft and keep it aloft for miles.
Last year Sean set a national record in his sailplane, flying from Tehachapi to Alturas, near the Oregon border, a distance of 456 miles in about seven hours.
Mind you, a sailplane doesn’t have an engine, so if the thermals quit, it loses altitude. The good news is, his sailplane’s roughly 40:1 glide ratio (how many meters it can travel forward before losing 1 meter of altitude) is far better than a Boeing 767 at 12:1 or the Space Shuttle’s glide ratio of 4.5.
Still, he can no longer count the number of times he’s dropped unexpectedly out of the air to surprise guests. These impromptu visits come with the territory.
“When I was in high school, I landed in a field where the farmer’s daughter was having her graduation party,” Franke said. “They invited me to the party, and we had a grand time. I think it was something new for them.”
Although unexpected, these landings should hardly be classified as emergencies, especially for Franke, a third-generation glider pilot who saw his first hang time when he was two-years-old. He is always with a plan if his glider’s altitude sinks to an unacceptably low level.
“When you start getting closer to the ground, you have a certain field picked out,” said Franke, who speaks openly and directly like his name. “I tell myself, ‘If I go below this altitude, the gear goes down and I’m landing.’”
Thus, one would think that the level-headed electronic merchant services executive, someone who deals in small margins and percentages in his business, would never consider gliding over a large body of water.
“I have flown the entire length of Lake Tahoe. Just because …,” said Franke, indicating his exhilarating addiction to the sport. “But, generally, you want to avoid large bodies of water because thermals are non-existent.”
Over the years, Franke has relied on different family members and friends to pick him up wherever his journey might end. Surprisingly, it’s not that big a deal to disassemble the sailplane and put it in a trailer for the ride home. “We can take it apart in 20 minutes and be on the road,” Franke said. That’s less than it takes some people to pitch a tent.
To launch a glider, the two most common methods are by aero tow and by winch. When aero towed, the glider is towed behind a powered aircraft using a rope about 200 feet long. The glider’s pilot releases the rope after reaching the desired altitude, usually between 1,000 and 2,000 feet in the air. This is Franke’s usual launch method.
“It’s the most economical way to fly,” Franke said. “For a $45 tow, I can fly for four or five hours.”
Winch launching uses a powerful stationary engine located on the ground at the far end of the launch area. The glider is attached to one end of a wire cable about 2,500 to 4,000 feet away and the winch then rapidly winds it in. On dry lake beds, automobiles are often used to pull gliders into the air, by pulling them directly or through the use of a pulley in a similar manner to the winch launch.
Although Franke is flying engineless, he’s not exactly flying solo. He relies on various instruments, including an air speed indicator (he’s reached gliding speeds of 160 mph), an altimeter, compass, radio, and in-flight computer with GPS. Into it, he programs his location, altitude, wind direction and such minute details as how many bugs and insects are pasted on the edge of his wing to calculate his expected time of arrival or ETA.
What Franke didn’t calculate is his rising status in his sport. He is one of two pilots to earn a spot on the United States team to compete next July in the 31st FAI World Gliding Championships in Prievidza, Slovakia. Typically, the competitions carry on for days. In the nationals, for example, the competition stretched over 10 days, with judges deeming six of them to be good for flying. For the European competition, Franke could be gone as long as a month, counting his preparation time. Each day the competitors will be given a new course to fly based on GPS coordinates that the judges can track every four seconds. One point on the course (which is more like flying in an invisible cylinder) could be four miles away and the next 400 miles away.
Serving as his pit crew will be his father, a world-class glider pilot in his own right, and perhaps his nine-year-old son Alex. Should Alex go on to get his glider’s pilot license some day, Franke said his family would be the first to have a fourth-generation sailplane pilot.
If Franke wins the world competition, he might walk away with a nice medal. Since it’s not a huge spectator sport like tennis or golf or even yachting, there’s not a lot of endorsement or prize money lying around.
“In the end, the one thing you get out of this is the satisfaction of knowing you did well, and earning the respect of others. It’s not like driving a car or piloting an airplane with an engine. You have to apply strategy to fly across country in a sailplane. You need to understand the weather and terrain and be able to read clouds like a fisherman reads a stream. You’re really racing against the elements.”
You would think Frank’s spending so much time in the troposphere, instead of the office, would be bad for business. Just the opposite is true.
Fellow flyers are a select group, with disposable incomes that put even golfers to shame. Many are independent successful business owners who have a need for Franke’s merchant services. He didn’t plan it that way. His love of flying and meteorology got him into the business. After the Michigan State graduate left the Wolverine state to teach flying lessons in California, he found the $30 a day he was making wasn’t enough to cover his bills. Concerned, the same person who helped get him the flight instructor job told him he was selling his electronic merchant machines and asked Franke if he was interested.
“I told him, ‘If it makes more than $30 a day, I’m in,’” Franke recalled. After about a month of training, he’s been “in” for the past 10 years and went on to found his own business.
At age 38, Franke has found his way, high above life’s beaten path, gliding through life just the way he likes it.