Oct 9, 2018

Learning about the Tommy Plane

I had never heard of the Tommy Plane and, to my surprise, neither had my aviation-enthusiast, John.  The WW I Thomas-Morse S-4B aka the “Tommy Plane” was made in Ithaca. The Wright Brothers will always be known as the first flyers for many reasons; not withstanding is their agreement with the Smithsonian that states that, “Neither the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities administered for the United States of America by the Smithsonian Institution or its
successors shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight.” Taking Teddy Roosevelt for a ride was a public relations coup. But the Wright Brothers feat has overshadowed some other remarkable steps in aviation including the Tommy Plane.

For a few short years in the early 20th century, Ithaca was a
thriving center of the aviation industry. The Thomas-Morse Aircraft Corporation produced hundreds of WW I-era “Tommy” Scout Planes. At first the “scout” was used for fast reconnaissance planes but they were soon modified to carry weapons; the term “scout” was retained. One of the few remaining planes has been lovingly restored and on Sept. 29 it took flight at the local airport.  

John and I took the Tommy Bus Tour while we were in Ithaca.  We started at the Hanger Theater, formerly the municipal airport, where there was a picture of Amelia Earhart’s visit to the then airport. I didn’t realize she was so glamorous.  

The first stop on the Tommy Bus Tour was at the Airplane Factory which is today a multi-use
building. The next stop was the Morris Chain Factory. Over 100 years ago the Thomas-Morse Airplane Co. produced nearly 600 Tommy Scouts making Ithaca one of the largest suppliers of military aircraft at the time. The factory employed more than 1100 people. At the Morris Chain Factory we toured the large vacant property.  (Similar to the Wright Brothers bicycle chain factories played a part in the beginning of aviation.) At one time the train track ran right through
the building and the Tommy Planes were loaded for delivery to a variety of destinations. The first big order came in 1918 when the British Admiralty ordered 25. Armed guards were posted outside that building for security.  In the fall of 1916, Thomas Brothers got their first significant U.S. order, from the Navy, for 15 float planes.  The production was going great until the end of the war which eliminated the need for the plane and that
coupled with the advances in aviation brought a close to the Tommy construction. The one place we didn’t visit is now called Barton Hall; it is where Cornell ran a school during WW I training pilots. 

We were unable to go to the Ithaca Airport to see the Tommy take flight.  We were on the Teal Boat tour.  I had hoped that the plane would fly over Cayuga Lake but, sadly, it did not. I hope to return next year when the restored plane will have a place of honor in the new Tompkins County Historical Society building which will, at that time, be in a new location of the Commons.