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Bob Fronius; sky was no limit for local aviation enthusiast

February 25, 2007

Bob Fronius spent a lot of his life up in the air looking for a soft landing.

He made hundreds of jumps from airplanes, often using experimental parachutes. He was an avid hang glider who made his last flight at age 68. And he continued to pilot sailplanes at 80.

He even developed parachutes for hang gliders and airplanes years before they became commonplace.

For six decades, he participated in various facets of sport aviation in San Diego, intrigued by his own ideas about flight as well as those of others and willing to explore them all.

"I would call him an adventurist, someone who really was thinking outside the box long before that became a catch-phrase," longtime friend Andy Kecskes said. "He was always thinking about how to do things in a unique fashion."

Mr. Fronius, an El Cajon resident, died Feb. 9 of chronic breathing problems at a skilled nursing facility in Rancho Bernardo. He was 91.

He took his first airplane ride at age 10 in his hometown of Minneapolis and was smitten by it. He started hanging around the Wold-Chamberlain airport there and at 17 made his first solo flight.

From that point, his life would revolve around aviation, first in the Navy, then later as a parachute maker, aircraft mechanic and sport aviation enthusiast.

"It didn't matter what he was doing, he was always thinking about how he could make something better," Kecskes said. "He was either thinking about redesigning or re-engineering something, or finding a better way to do things. He was always tinkering."

Mr. Fronius came to San Diego after joining the Navy in 1936. He made his first parachute jump a short while later at Dutch Flats, the military airfield that was located on a site now occupied by the Midway Post Office.

He worked as a parachute rigger and fabric repairman aboard the aircraft carriers Lexington and Saratoga during World War II before returning to civilian life in 1942.

But he was so interested in parachutes that he bought the San Diego Parachute Co. and began designing chutes. He tested many of his experimental chutes and made hundreds of jumps.

After the war, he moved his company from Lindbergh Field to Gillespie Field in El Cajon when the Marine Corps vacated its parachute jumping school there. His business was the first commercial enterprise at the airfield.

Mr. Fronius did jumps at air shows, and in 1943, he purchased a sailplane and added glider aerobatics to his air show parachute routines.

"He took a lot of risks, but he wasn't a daredevil," Jerry Ryan said. "He was very careful in what he did."

Ryan and his father, aviation pioneer T. Claude Ryan, employed Mr. Fronius as an aircraft mechanic at three companies, including the one that would eventually become Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical. He helped the Ryans develop power-gliders.

"He was an outstanding and versatile mechanic," Ryan said. "He could do anything you wanted done - he would just figure out a way to do it. He was just the kind of guy you wanted if you were developing experimental aircraft."

Mr. Fronius was a founding member of the San Diego chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association and took up hang gliding in his late 50s. He founded the organization now known as the San Diego Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, the oldest hang gliding club in the nation.

He resumed sailplane flying at 68 and continued that until he was 80.

"He loved adventure," Kecskes said, recalling that Mr. Fronius was toying with the idea of affixing a dining room chair to helium balloons to float eastward over the Cuyamaca Mountains to the Imperial Valley.

"Why would he do that?" Kecskes asked. "Because nobody had done it before so why not?"

Mr. Fronius is survived by his daughter, Susan Olsen of Seattle; sons, Doug of Poway and Floyd of San Diego; a brother, Joseph Fronius of Minnetonka, Minn.; sister, Betty Eastgate of Minnetonka; and three grandchildren.

A private interment is planned at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. A remembrance is planned for 2 p.m. March 17 at Allen Airways Flying Museum at Gillespie Field, 2020 W. Marshall Ave., El Cajon.

By Michael Kinsman

Posted: 3/6/2007

Final Glide 

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