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Mountain Home Magazine

When Tommy Comes Flying Home Again

Aug 29, 2018 01:34PM

The Past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” ~William Faulkner

A century ago Ithaca ruled as one of the U.S. military’s largest aircraft suppliers, producing the bi-wing Thomas-Morse Scout aeroplane, fondly called Tommy, in America’s effort to train pilots going to war against Germany “to save democracy.”

The Thomas-Morse Airplane Company factory built 600 Tommy Scouts in buildings still standing in Ithaca. The city had 17,000 residents, and the company employed 1,100 people. Tommys were loaded onto railcars and hauled to Army and Navy bases. The Tommy is a single seater for pilots who had learned flight basics and graduated to practice stateside for aerial dog fights.

“The community was the center of aviation a century ago,” notes Michael S. Hall, director of the Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport.

One Tommy Scout that left for duty 100 years ago has been brought home from California and restored to airworthy condition. It will take to the sky again in a historic event free and open to the public on Saturday, September 29, at the Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport.

Tommy Scouts began taking to the sky in June 1917 after America joined France and England in their third year of WWI.

Aircraft were constructed of wood, wire, and rag—a wooden structure and propeller, wire bracing struts, and a cotton skin over the fuselage and wings, explains Donald Funke, president of the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation.

“They were pretty small airplanes,” he says. “About twenty feet long, a wingspan of 26.5 feet.” The Tommy could fly ninety-five miles per hour, labeled as high speed.

On November 11, 1918, war that had raged for four years finally ended. Ithaca’s plant shut down production of the trainer as soon as the armistice was announced, leaving the Thomas-Morse Airplane Company holding excess inventory.

All Tommy aircraft were remaindered as government surplus—400 dollars apiece. By the end of the century, bi-wing planes had been lost in the disappearing blues like high-wheel bicycles, player pianos, and electric trolleys.

One day in 2003, Don Funke, a passionate pilot, was discussing history with friends, and the topic of Thomas-Morse airplanes came up. “We had aviators who didn’t know about the planes made in Ithaca,” says Don. “Nobody knew how many Tommys were around.” He and his crew didn’t know much about the Tommys, but they agreed that one should be in Ithaca. “ at inspired our dream to have a Tommy fly again here.”

They formed a board of directors. “We found out there were about a dozen still around in the United States,” he says. “Half were in museums. The other half were privately owned. We didn’t have the money to buy them or anything to trade. We were naïve in capital letters, but we were passionate.”

They pursued leads in New England, Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio, and the state of Washington—to no avail.

A board member visited relatives in San Diego and investigated a Tommy that had been hanging on display in the San Diego Air & Space Museum but had been recently removed. The plane’s owner, Dr. William H. Thibault, a medical doctor, maintained a busy medical practice. It took a while for Don to reach him. More time passed trying to convince him that his Tommy needed to come home to Ithaca.

“Then something happened that I call divine intervention,” Don recalls. Each June the city hosts an arts festival. “We had a kiosk, which showed a story board to get the community involved in our project. Our kiosk presented a story board headed ‘Tommy Come Home.’ A board member and his wife staffed the kiosk when a girl about four or five with her grandmother pointed at the story board. The girl read the words aloud. Her grandmother responded by saying that they had a Tommy. It turned out to be Dr. Thibault’s wife, visiting their son and granddaughter, living in Ithaca.”

The connection led to the Tommy arriving in Ithaca in May 2010. Years of painstaking restoration followed. Fortunately, the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, a four-hour drive away in Rhinebeck, New York, had the same model Tommy Scout. Don and colleagues spent two years commuting there, calipers in hand, to craft new wings and an oak propeller. At the Aerodrome, Don met Ken Cassens, a specialist in piloting vintage aircraft.

“The Tommy has an eighty-horsepower Le Rhône engine,” explains Ken Cassens. “The rotary engines from WWI era used up a lot of castor oil. Most of it is contained within the engine cowling, but oil sprays all over the airplane—the wings, the fuselage, the tail. That’s one of the reasons pilots wore a scarf—to wipe oil off their goggles.”

On September 29, Ken is scheduled to fly Tommy from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., 100 years after it rolled out of Ithaca. The flight will fulfill the dream of many volunteers and supporters who donated cash, goods, services, and countless hours to restoring the Tommy to flying condition. An alternate fly date is Sunday, September 30.

Tommy will have a place of honor in Ithaca’s new county history center to educate the community about its role in early aviation and to engage youth in aviation, science, and technology.