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October 19, 2018

Sandra Scott Travels: The Tommy Plane Flies Into History


Last week I asked: What is a Tommy Plane?

A World War I scout aircraft

the Tommy Bus Tour

the Tommy Bus Tour

I had never heard of the Tommy Plane and, to my surprise, neither had my aviation-enthusiast, John.

The World War I Thomas-Morse S-4B aka the “Tommy Plane” was made in Ithaca.

The Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers

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.

"Tommy" workers

“Tommy” workers

The Thomas-Morse Aircraft Corporation produced hundreds of World War 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.

the Hanger Theater

the Hanger Theater

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.

More than 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 1,100 people.

Amelia Earhart’s visit

Amelia Earhart’s visit

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.

Showing off their plane

Showing off their plane

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 World War I training pilots.

Listening to the tour guide

Listening to the tour guide

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.

Tommy in flight

Tommy in flight

Travel Trivia Tease™: How do you make Rakhine Chicken Curry?

Look for the answer next week.

Sandra and her husband, John, have been exploring the world for decades, always on the lookout for something new and unique to experience. We have sailed down the Nile for a week on a felucca, stayed with the Pesch Indians in La Mosquitia, visited schools in a variety of countries, and — to add balance to our life — stayed at some of the most luxurious hotels in the world. Let the fun continue!

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