ITHACA, N.Y. — The Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation was able to celebrate the progress they have made on restoring an original Thomas-Morse airplane last Sunday with the Ithaca community by starting the plane’s engine for the first time in over 75 years. The IAHF’s mission is to keep Ithaca’s notable aviation history alive and relevant through the restoration of the aircraft.

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“Before World War I, Ithaca was the fourth largest stateside supplier of airplanes,” said IAHF President Don Funke, “Our heritage that we own here in Ithaca, this history, is a very precious thing and it’s all being lost because it’s not talked about anymore.”

The Thomas-Morse plane, affectionately referred to as ‘Tommy,’ was donated to the IAHF by Dr. and Mrs. William Thibault in December of 2009. After over 75 years of disuse and five years of repair under the IAHF, Tommy’s engine roared to life in front of a crowd of over 100 hopeful onlookers. The WWI aircraft was last flown circa 1935 and in peak condition can fly up to 95 miles per hour.

Event attendee Lee Robbins, a plight of over 60 years, got a front-row seat to see the engine start. Robbins, who learned to fly in 1947, said the today was very reminiscent for him.

“I think it is so exciting. It’s just wonderful to hear those nice, old, smooth engines running again,” Robbins said.

Hearing Tommy’s engine run again

Everett Morse, the 98 year old descendant of the Morse family, was also able to attend the event and hear Tommy’s engine run for the first time. Morse said that it was exciting to see the aircraft running again and mentioned that his ancestors would most likely be surprised that so many people are interested in one of their planes.

The IAHF gained an invitation to perform the restoration in the shop on South Aurora Street, in the exactly the same place where it was originally built.

“We were able to use some of the machinery that still exists like, band saws that were used to cut the wood of the original airplanes. We’re using those machines again to cut the replacement wood for this airplane,” Funke said.

Video by Mark Hartsuyker, Recording Raccoon Studios

Posted by Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation on Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Thomas-Morse company, which manufactured from a plant on South Aurora Street, got an order for the first 100 airplanes late in 1917 and Tommy was a part of that order. Funke said that Tommy is one of the only two model Bs that exist today from that order.

According to the IAHF’s budget proposal, it was originally estimated that it would take $250,000 to fully restore Tommy, but Funke said because of volunteered hours in the repair process the organization has remained under budget.

“Believe it or not, our volunteer hours are in the tens of thousands over the last five to six years,” Funke said, “Our volunteers have put in so many hours into this project because it’s something they believe in. It’s a preservation of the history and heritage of Ithaca’s aviation and they want to be a part of it.”

Funke said that the IAHF was lucky for the condition that Tommy came to them in. After the first World War, the aircraft had its engine “pickled” with oil to preserve it and was passed through 11 owners, only some of which were museums.

About 13 years ago, Funke and other aviation-oriented individuals got together to form the IAHF and Funke said it was not long before the Thomas-Morse Aircraft Corporation came up in conversation. Someone in the initial meeting had mentioned that if there was even just one Thomas-Morse airplane left, it should be in Ithaca community where it was built. After that, the IAHF spent four years looking for an aircraft like Tommy to bring back to Ithaca.

The IAHF knows that Tommy was delivered from the factory in Ithaca in April 1918, so the organisation’s ambition is to completely restore Tommy and fly the aircraft at least once before its 100th anniversary, April 2018, and then have it on permanent display in Ithaca. IAHF board member Debbie Franks said that it is essential Tommy remain in Ithaca after its restoration.

“We’re hoping to put Tommy in a museum because we want people to have access to him, but we want to keep him in Ithaca. He was made here and he belongs here. Ithaca is his home as much as it is ours,” Franks said.

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