“Don, the airplane is yours.” Those were the words that Don Funke, president of the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation, had been waiting to hear. It was the day before Christmas 2009, and Funke was meeting in Ithaca with Dr. William Thibault from San Diego.
“I just about fell off my chair,” said Funke. “My mouth dropped open, and I said, ‘My gosh, there really is a Santa Claus. ‘”
The story begins several years earlier, when Funke and a group of aviation-oriented people were discussing an upcoming event at the Ithaca airport. The topic of the local Thomas-Morse Aircraft Corporation – now defunct – came up, and the group realized they knew very little about its history.
After some research, they discovered that William and Oliver Thomas, brothers who had previously worked for Glenn Curtiss, were invited to Ithaca in 1914 to establish the Thomas Aeroplane Company. In 1916, the company won a government contract and the following year it merged with the Morse-Chain Company to become the Thomas-Morse Aircraft Corporation. It built planes used as “advanced trainers” for service members before they’d head overseas. The S4-C Scout, called the “Tommy” by pilots who flew it, soon became the favorite single-seat training airplane produced in the U.S. during World War I. Six hundred of them were built in Ithaca.
“It was a big deal for the little town to get a contract for that many airplanes, especially one that was recognized as making a significant contribution to the war training effort,” said Funke.
It didn’t take his group long to realize the importance of bringing a Tommy back to its birthplace. “With Ithaca being the transient town that it is, there’s a lot of history that’s very significant to early aviation in the Finger Lakes that has been forgotten. The preservation of this heritage is what is important to us,” said Funke. “If only one of these planes is still in existence, shouldn’t it be here in Ithaca where it was built?”
Finding a Tommy
And so began the “Tommy come home” project, that included years of investigation, false hopes and what Funke calls “peaks and valleys.” The group discovered that there were about a dozen Tommys left in the United States, half of which were housed in museums. Others were in the hands of private collectors. The museums and individual owners were not willing to part with their treasures. Having no money at the time, the group could not even afford to buy one of the planes they found “basically as a pile of junk in a dumpster.” They’d get excited about a possibility one day, and would find out it wasn’t going to happen the next.
Commited to their effort, the group formed the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation Inc. (IAHF), with Funke as the president. He was joined on the IAHF board by Dave Flinn, Pete DeGraff and Randy Marcus, and soon afterward by Art Muka, Mike Shay and Steve Romaine, all airplane enthusiasts. Muka was planning a trip west to visit the San Diego Air and Space Museum. They knew a Tommy was on display there as part of the museum’s World War I exhibit.
“It was one of the few planes that we knew very little about,” said Funke. “We didn’t know the model or even the serial number. That was unusual.”
When he got there, Muka discovered the plane was no longer on display, but in the restoration shop “awaiting disposition.”
What will the doctor order?
“That’s when we got really excited,” said Funke. “We found out it was on loan to the museum by William N. Thibault, M.D., who bought it in the early 1980s with the idea that he was going to restore it during his retirement years.”
Folks at the museum were anxious for him to decide what he’d like to do with it since they were interested in restoring it themselves, and making it a part of their permanent collection.
Funke contacted Dr. Thibault and reported on IAHF’s progress, noting how wonderful it would be if his Tommy came home to Ithaca. The board continued to keep him informed of their activities, such as building a replica set of wings in the old Thomas-Morse plant on South Aurora Street (now the Emerson Power Transmission plant) with some of the same tools that had been used to build the Tommy nearly 100 years earlier.
“We were hoping it would excite him and maybe lead him to donate the airplane to the foundation,” said Funke.
At the Ithaca Festival in June 2009, fate stepped in.
The IAHF had set up a table to promote the Tommy project and encourage support from the community. A storyboard entitled “Tommy Come Home” showed pictures and discussed the group’s strides to make their dream a reality. Board member Randy and his wife, Terry, were manning the table when a young girl and her grandmother approached.
Terry said, “Tommy’s an airplane!” The grandmother replied, “We know. We have one, and you want it.” They disappeared into the crowd before Marcus could respond.
When Marcus discussed it with Funke later, they deduced there could be only one woman in the country who could make that statement truthfully: the doctor’s wife. “What on earth was she doing in Ithaca?” they wondered.
They discovered that Dr. Thibault’s son and his family lived in Ithaca. “With renewed excitement, we continued to provide progress reports to the doctor with high hopes,” Funke said.
Several months earlier, IAHF had applied for 501(c)(3) not-for-profit tax-exempt status, which made donations tax deductible. When they told Dr. Thibault about the application, his response was: “Congratulations on your progress. When you get your tax exempt number, let us know and we will proceed.”
“That was a peak as high as peaks go,” Funke said.
The IAHF invited the doctor to come and see their work on constructing the new Tommy wings the next time he visited Ithaca. Although his visit in September 2009 was enjoyed by all, he made no commitment to part with his treasure. Undaunted, the board hoped it was not the last time they’d see him.
Dr. Thibault returned to Ithaca to visit his family at Christmas, and Funke invited him to meet over coffee. “I didn’t sleep the night before,” Funke remembered. “I was rehearsing what I was going to say. I thought, ‘We’ve got one more chance, and we’ve got to be convincing!’ I was about five minutes into my 15-minute presentation when the doctor stopped me and announced he had decided to donate the airplane to the foundation.”
The following year, in May, the IAHF transported the Tommy from San Diego to Ithaca. “Dr. Thibault and his family are just so happy that his airplane is here in Ithaca, and that we’re in the process of restoring it to flying condition,” noted Funke.
“On you, I see the glory”
In preparation for the Tommy’s 100th birthday in 2018, the IAHF, the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association, and many community volunteers are working tirelessly to restore her to flying condition. “This one left the factory in April 1918,” said Funke. “By 2018 we want to see the airplane ready to fly again. Tommy will be returned to the same condition in which she left the factory in time for her 100th birthday.”
The IAHF hopes the restoration, at least in some part, will take place in all three of the original Thomas-Morse buildings. “That’s what did it for me and others in the beginning. We realized then that the stage was set. All we needed was the star to come home, and we were able to make that happen.
“We’re always looking for volunteers to help,” continued Funke. “They really don’t need to have any special skills, because we can teach them everything they need to know.”
He would like to see younger people get involved. “We have a lot of grandfathers right now. We’re looking for what might be the grandchild, the parents and the grandparents. After all, this is their airplane, their heritage. It’s a community project and it takes many people with many different talents.”
Funke said he feels privileged to have played a role in preserving Tommy’s legacy in Ithaca. “At the very beginning of the project, the thought of bringing a Tommy home was just the most exciting thing I could think of doing. To be able to work on this precious historical artifact and know that its longtime owner trusted us enough to put it in our hands to restore it – I just feel very honored to even be a part of it.”
Once restoration is complete, the IAHF plans to provide a permanent public display of the plane in Ithaca. A number of local organizations have expressed interest in being the site of Tommy’s future home.
by Kimberly Price