Frank Dean: Aviation Pioneer
Before Frank Dean became a physician, he was a pioneering pilot during the late 1920s and early 1930s – the early days of aviation. There wasn’t anything as glamorous as being a daredevil pilot in those days. Everyone was interested in watching airplanes, and flying heroes were sought after like rock stars are today. Frank was as greatly admired in Madison as Charles Lindbergh was throughout the world for being the first pilot to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
Up, up and away
Frank first became interested flying as a young boy. One day shortly after the end of World War I, a local newspaper announced that an airplane would fly over Madison. On the designated day, the Dean family climbed on the roof of their home and viewed with wonder the novelty of seeing an airplane soar overhead. Frank was hooked.
Early in 1927, Frank began to take flying lessons at Royal Airport (a site now occupied by South Towne Mall). He flew in the old open cockpit airplanes of the day, wearing a helmet and goggles. Once airborne, there was no way to communicate, so the instructor would give Frank instructions on the ground, ride with him in the air, “and then he would point a certain way, and then we discussed it on the ground after it was all over.” After taking about five hours of lessons spread over four or five months, Frank flew his first solo flight.
A brush with fame
Twice in two years, aviation hero and former University of Wisconsin student Charles Lindbergh returned to Madison: in August 1927, three months after his historic solo flight in The Spirit of St. Louis between New York and Paris, to promote commercial aviation, and in June 1928, when he received an honorary degree from the university.
According to Frank, when Lindbergh was scheduled to be in Madison in 1928, the Dean family was at home, sitting around the kitchen table. “It came up that Lindbergh was going to take some prominent people up for a ride in his airplane. So Dad jokingly said, ‘Well, Frank, if you get a ride with Lindbergh, I’ll buy you an airplane.’”
Frank leaped to his feet and rushed off to Royal Airport to find either the manager or the one and only pilot, Howard Morey. He figured he could make a deal: If they’d arrange for him to get a ride with Lindbergh, he’d buy a plane from them. “That’s about all it took,” Frank recalled.
He continued with the story, recounting that one of them said to Lindbergh, “There’s this kid whose father will buy him an airplane if you give him a ride.” Lindbergh replied, “Tell him to get in.” The last empty seat accompanied those of other notables, such as the president of the University of Wisconsin. Frank beamed: “I got my ride with Lindbergh.”
“I told Dad I wouldn’t hold him to his promise,” Frank explained, “but he said, ‘I made a bet, I’ll stick with it.’ By then, I already had a reputation as a daredevil driver of an automobile, but when people heard I now had an airplane, that was just about the last straw.”
The plane was a Velie Monocoupe, one of the first airplanes built for private flyers. Frank bought it during the summer of 1928, and kept it until he left for medical school in 1932. He said that, during his second solo flight, “the motor quit, but I made a decent landing.” He had to make the forced landing due to carburetor trouble. The same thing happened several times in the first six months.
In those early flying days, pilots were constantly trying to break aviation records. For Frank, this meant trying to set altitude records. In July 1929, an article in the Wisconsin State Journal was headlined “Frank Dean, Madison Aviator, Sets New Altitude Record Here.” Even though it was summer, he wore a heavy winter flying costume and suffered considerable coldness in his hands, thanks to the air temperature of about 22 degrees at that altitude. He flew between 13,800 and 14,000 feet above the city.
The July 15, 1929, edition of the Capital Times reported, “To make the flight complete, he landed the plane with a ‘dead-stick’ or with the motor shut off.” He borrowed Howard Morey’s plane and established a new altitude record of 17,000 feet. He explained that he would have gone higher, but when rain and moisture froze on the wings of the plane (it was about 11 degrees at that altitude), it became so heavy that it could rise no higher in the elevated atmosphere.
Frank continued his aerial exploits the following year, but with an unexpected twist. In an article headlined “Dean, Local Flier, in First ’Chute Jump” the Wisconsin State Journal reported: “The mysterious parachute jumper who Sunday afternoon thrilled the thousands gathered at Royal Airport to see the women’s derby pilots come in was young Frank Dean, well known University of Wisconsin student and son of Dr. Joseph Dean.
“It was Dean’s first experience bailing out via the ’chute route. He is an experienced pilot and volunteered to make the drop when a professional girl jumper failed to show up. His name was not announced at the field.
“Dean bailed out at an altitude of approximately 15,000 feet over the northeast corner of the field. The ’chute opened beautifully after he had plunged down 100 or 200 feet. On the way down, Dean was entertaining the customers with handstands and general gyrations.”
Frank later explained that he and his wife, Gladys—herself a daredevil and later a pilot, too—had flipped a coin to see who would jump. He “won—or lost, depending on your point of view. I knew nothing about parachute jumping. I thought you jumped, waited until you cleared the tail of the airplane, counted to five or ten, and pulled the cord. That’s the way it was, and that’s what I did. If I had to do it again, I’d get up higher in heaven and have a nice quiet ride down.”
Accidentally on purpose!
Frank’s most famous flying escapade occurred when he reportedly got his airplane stuck above the Wisconsin State Capitol. It happened on a day when the wind was relatively mild on the ground, but blew 40 to 50 miles per hour in the air. Frank’s plane could fly a maximum of 50 miles per hour, and he realized that he could hover directly above the Capitol when he flew into the wind. He said it was perfectly safe, but someone who watched him thought he was in trouble and called Howard Morey at the airport to report that “there’s a plane stuck over the Capitol and you’d better get somebody over there to get him down.” In an interview 40 years later, Frank said, “I haven’t lived that down yet.”