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Kentucky by Heart: Harry ‘Clark’ Karsner, known for Gospel Plane, contributed much to native Owen Co.

Whether he knew it or not when he was growing up in the humble Kentucky community of Monterey, in Owen County, Harry “Clark” Karsner’s life would one day reach soaring — even heavenly — heights. And in reaching those heights, he didn’t have to leave his native land very long to achieve them.

Harry ‘Clark’ Karsner (Image from Margaret Murphy Collection at the Owen County Historical Society)

After his marriage to Sarah Jane Gill in 1937, Clark received his commercial pilot’s license the next year. Soon, he would teach aeronautics in Danville and would participate with the Danville Airport, in 1940, to bring the Civilian Pilot Training Program to Centre College. A few years later, during World War II, he served as a flight instructor at Ryan’s School of Aeronautics in San Diego, California; he became a flight commander in 1942.

Clark was a long way from home, but after the war, he came back to Owen County to the Old Cedar community near Monterey. Aviation stirred his heart, and he constructed a four-plane hangar, called Karsner Airfield, right off U.S. 127. His purpose? He would teach military veterans flying skills, most of them local ones, but that wasn’t all he’d do.

Being a man of devout Christian faith and influenced by evangelist Dr. Louis W. Arnold, he established a “flying gospel ministry.” Perhaps an explanation is needed because the project was quite unusual. It happened when Clark equipped a plane with a public address system and his evangelist friend recorded a brief sermon to use. Clark’s wife helped by supplying recorded gospel songs. The “Gospel Plane,” according to writer Margaret Murphy in the Northern Kentucky Encyclopedia, flew within a hundred-mile radius around the Frankfort area, “delivering the message to all those within earshot.” A large, neon sign on the side of the hanger had the words, “Christ is the answer.”

Over the years, there were far-reaching reports of people who heard the messages from above and were religiously converted.

Harry ‘Clark’ Karsner (Image from Margaret Murphy Collection at the Owen County Historical Society)

On May 26, 2023, a dedication ceremony for the Karsner Airfield Historical Marker was held near the former site on U.S. 127. Both patriotic songs and tributes to Harry Clark Karsner were presented. Dr. Louis Arnold, whose brief sermons were presented from Karsner’s plane flying overhead, gave some interesting details about he and Harry’s partnership leading to the Gospel Plane ministry.

Arnold, like Clark, was a pilot and the two had become friends, and Clark was interested in Arnold’s evangelistic ministry. Arnold recalled that when he was approached to help do the Gospel Plane initiative, he told Clark: “I don’t think it will work. First of all, the plane would go too fast, and second, there’s not a loudspeaker that would have enough power to be heard on the ground.” Clark told him he found an electrical engineer to increase the volume… and Clark would also pay for the operation. With that, Dr. Arnold responded, “We’ll give it a try.”

What did he have to lose?

Soon, there were results, according to Dr. Arnold. He told of a man who “came down the aisle” at a church where he preached, saying he wanted to join the church. The man then expressed how he came to the decision. “I was working in my barn, putting down hay for my cows,” said the new convert. “And I heard singing coming out of the sky… I thought the Lord was coming. I stood outside the barn and saw the plane, heard the message, and I got saved.”

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Ernie Stamper)

On a humorous vein, Arnold told of standing alongside an “ol’ farmer” on a street in nearby Owenton when the Gospel Plane flew directly over them, religious music blasting. The farmer remarked, said Arnold, “I wonder how they got that piano up there.”

Clark believed the world was coming to an end, and in a Courier-Journal article about him by Allan Trout in 1949, Trout quoted him as saying: “I can’t preach it, but in my own way, I can take the warning to 15,000 to 20,000 people a day, on the average. I’m just doing my duty as a Christian, as I see it, and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction.”

A true pioneer, Clark Karsner created a lot of news around Owen County and beyond with his special evangelistic project. He wasn’t a “one-trick-pony,” however. Besides raising a family with his wife that included three children, Harry was a vital citizen in the life of Owen County. Here is a list of ways he was involved:

• Elected, in 1958, as director of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association of Kentucky

• In 1959, became Kentucky governor A.B. “Happy” Chandler’s commissioner of aeronautics

• A farmer and landowner in Owen County

• chairman of the Owen County Board of Education

• A magistrate in the county

• A director of the First Farmers Bank in the county

• Head of the Kentucky Croquet Association

Karsner died on December 21, 1971, and is buried in the Monterey Cemetery, in Owen County.

If you desire more information about Karsner, contact Bonnie Strassell at the owencountylibrary.org or contact the Owen County Historical Society. And there is also a published book called Great Idea: The Story of Harry Clark Karsner, by Lesley Barker. It can be ordered on Amazon.com.

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One Comment

  1. Eric Snider says:

    This man knew the importance and power of the good news of Jesus Christ! May all who seek peace in this chaotic world find hope and purpose in Jesus Christ!

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