Courtesy of Don Funke

Ithacans help restore "Tommy," the WW1 biplane, prior to its Sept. 29 flight back to Ithaca.

September 10, 2018

Not a Plane Left Behind: WW1 Biplane Manufactured in Ithaca Returns Home for Centenary Flight Over Town

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A nearly-forgotten yet significant artifact of Ithaca’s history — one of the last remaining Thomas-Morse S-4 Scout biplanes from World War I — will make a return to its hometown when it flies in the city on Sept. 29.

Dubbed the “Tommy”, the biplane served as a training aircraft for the United States Army and United States Navy towards the end of World War I. The aircraft was produced in Ithaca by the Thomas-Morse Aircraft Corporation from 1917 to 1918.

Fifteen years ago, members of the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation proposed to bring the S-4 Scout back to its birthplace. The journey that ensued was a long but rewarding one; Don Funke, a leader and major contributor to the project, has overseen the process from the very beginning.

“We had people saying that it was probably a million in one shot,” Funke said. “There was a string of miracles that happened along the way”.

“We went to all corners of the United States … we had no money, neither did we have anything to trade,” he said.

After scouring every possible lead, foundation members discovered a promising find: an S-4 Scout under the private ownership of Dr. William Thibault, a prominent doctor in Orange, California. Members of the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation reached out to the doctor in hopes of obtaining the aircraft.

Coincidentally, the doctor had relatives who reside in Ithaca and they were able to have the doctor come to the facilities of the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation. After some deliberation and negotiation, the doctor made his decision.

“We sit down and we’re having coffee and I start my spiel,” Funke recalled. “I got about three minutes into it and he kind of poked me in the shoulder and said ‘Don, the airplane is yours.’”

The restoration process, however, was a tedious one. Not many schematics remained of the B-variant of the S-4 Scout, which was the aircraft the Foundation now possessed.

“It was in need of a lot of help,” Funke said. “Every stick, every wire, every turn buckle, every bolt, every nut, came off of that airplane … we stayed as true as we could to the original materials and restoration processes”.

The foundation also used the same exact facilities the original Thomas-Morse Aircraft Corporation used one hundred years ago. “We were in there using the same tools building the same thing — that cannot happen anywhere else in the world,” Funke noted.

To aid the restoration process, Ithacans contributed hours of labor and thousands of dollars worth of materials. “The community got behind it; all I had to do was continue recruiting volunteers,” he said.

Volunteers spanned over three generations. “We’ve had young kids working on the airplane — it has been a continuous involvement of three generations,” Funke said.

Jessie White, the event coordinator for the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation, has worked with the restoration team to share this piece of history with the Ithaca community.

A talk and a bus tour have been organized to celebrate the centennial flight of the “Tommy” scout biplane. The former is on Sept. 18 at 7 p.m. at The History Center and the latter is on Sept. 28 at 2 p.m., meeting at the hangar theatre.

The centennial flight itself will take place on Sept. 29 at 2 p.m. at the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport.

“I am really hoping that this is a great successful event for the public and community members … it’s a lot about enriching the community but also having a fun event,” she said.

After the flight, the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation will “put it in our permanent display in Ithaca as a symbol of what happened a hundred years ago in the aviation industry in the hometown of Ithaca, New York,” Funke said.

“This airplane belongs to those [volunteering] kids and Ithaca. We want them to know what a World War One airplane sounds like, what it smells like, what it looks like,” he said.