Tommy comes home

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After 15 years, thousands of hours of work, thousands more spent on research, dozens of volunteers, and an unending well of passion, an original Thomas “Tommy” S-4B Scout has found its way home to Ithaca. The Tommy plane was originally built right here in Ithaca 100 years ago by the Thomas Morse Airplane Company and was used as a training plane for pilots heading off to Europe during World War I. Only two of this kind (the S-4B) still exist today, and only one of them is in flying condition. This Saturday, Sept. 29, the restored Tommy plane will make its first public flight, and its final flight ever, at the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport to celebrate the 100 years of aviation history right here in Tompkins County.

The Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation (IAHF) wasn’t even formed yet when the idea was brought up to restore one of the planes originally produced in this area. At the time, the group was hoping to do more to create interest in the local aviation scene and history. Little did they know that they were embarking on a long and arduous journey that would require them to scour the world for specific parts, comb through hundreds of historic documents for paint colors, and travel across the country just to find their plane.

Don Funke is President of the IAHF and one of the original members of that group that met 15 years ago. After someone in the room brought up the Thomas Brothers Aeroplane Company, only a handful in the room had heard about it at all.

“None of this history was known by me, and virtually very few other people,” Funke said.

If none of the aviation enthusiasts in the room knew about the local history, it was a sure bet that the rest of the community wouldn’t either. So, the group headed to The History Center in Tompkins County to start learning. B.D. Thomas was an airplane engineer who started working in the area in the early 1900s for the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company in Hammondsport. Here he met brothers William and Oliver Thomas (not related to B.D.), but soon they would all separate from Curtiss to start their own journey. By 1914 the Thomas Brothers Aeroplane Company had settled in Ithaca after being courted to the area by the Ithaca Board of Trade, an early version of the Chamber of Commerce. Several years later in 1917, the Thomas brothers would strike a deal with Frank Morse of the Morse Chain Company to merge, becoming the Thomas-Morse Aircraft Corporation. Soon after, as it became more evident that World War I was on its way, the company produced training biplanes for the United States Army, 100 Thomas S-4Bs and 500 S-4Cs, becoming one of the largest suppliers of planes in America. One of the possible reasons that only 100 Bs were made before the modified C model was ordered is that heat and humidity messed with the already complicated cables that help steer the B model, said unofficial IAHF historian Jim Rundle who joined the project in 2010.

 



By now, the aviation enthusiasts were “infected,” as Funke likes to say, with a passion to find and restore one of the Tommy planes, bringing it home to Ithaca. Over the next two to three years they began tracking down all the Tommy planes they could, around 12, (half in museums, half in private collections) and learning all they could about them.

“By that time, we knew their serial numbers, their heritage, their pedigree, where they had come from, where they had gone,” Funke said. “We knew a lot about those airplanes, except one.”
The group had no money to buy a plane, and nothing to trade for one. If they were going to get a plane it was going to have to be donated. They tracked down a Tommy out in California, on loan to an aviation museum, that was owned by one Dr. William Thibault. After tracking down Thibault’s contact information the group told him what they were hoping to accomplish, they just needed a plane. The back and forth lasted for several months. Along the way, the group discovered that the doctor’s son actually lived in Ithaca and knew about the group and their project.

At this time, the group had already been working on building new wings for their eventual plane, in the original woodworking shop on South Hill in the Chain Works building, with many of the original tools. They managed to bring Thibault out for a tour of the shop and meet with him face to face. He still wasn’t ready to give the plane up. It was around this time that the group officially became the IAHF with 501(c)(3) status.

Christmas was fast approaching and the doctor was still undecided. The group had another chance to meet with him on Christmas Eve of 2009. Funke was the only member in the area, it was up to him.

“I start out on what I think’s going to take about 15 minutes to tell a story, I get about three minutes into it and he goes ‘Airplane is yours,’” Funke tells the story, smiling from ear to ear.
At the time, he just about fell out of his chair. They finally had a plane!

The plane was driven from California to Ithaca and arrived in Ithaca in May of 2010. It was decided that the renovations would strip the plane down to the bare bones and start from there, and it was a good thing they did. While deconstructing it the group found several safety concerns with the structure that they were able to address.

There are parts of this story that seem like miracles. The Thomas brothers did not have plans for the S-4B, which was different in many ways than the S-4C, which did have plans. (Rundle speculates that a possible reason for the missing plans is the secrecy around military projects of the time. “There were armed guards at Brindley Street when the first order was made for the British of a different plane, Ithaca’s first airplane the T2,” Rundle said.) Had the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Red Hook, New York not had an S-4B (the only other one in the world that’s complete) for the IAHF to consult, Funke said this restoration couldn’t have happened. Had many of the parts not been donated by generous companies just as enthusiastic about the project as the IAHF, this restoration could not have happened. Had the plane not been donated, this restoration wouldn’t have even started. Had the IAHF not been able to connect with experts around the world using social media, this restoration would have been stuck in early stages. Had one of the five pilots in the world able to fly a plane like Tommy, with a rotary engine, not lived just a few hours away, this project would not have taken off.

“You see me smile and laugh, I have a feeling when I talk about it you can probably witness it. It goes through your bones,” Funke said of the joy of having completed a project of this magnitude. “When I saw this fly and lift off the ground for the first time, can you imagine the emotion?”

The plane has had several test flights and every single time Funke tears up just as it leaves the ground. Watching something you have devoted 15 years of your life to come to life is an overwhelming feeling. So is hoping that it comes back in one piece.

“Still, I get emotional and I get goosebumps when it first lifts off, and then I worry about ‘You gotta get this back down safely,’” Funke said. “I really won’t rest until it’s down and in the History Center.”

After taking its final flight on Sept. 29 at the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport, starting at 2 p.m., Tommy will then be permanently housed at the upcoming Tompkins Center for History and Culture currently being renovated in bank alley on the Ithaca Commons.

Some have asked Funke why they will risk flying it after putting in all that hard work?

“Because it’s an airplane,” he said. “It wouldn’t be an airplane if it didn’t fly.”

 

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