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Slipping the Surly Bonds of Earth: Volunteer-restored 1917 Thomas-Morse S-4B flies!

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After 15 years of vision, hard work, collaboration, and divine interventions, the Thomas-Morse S-4B advanced trainer that Don Funke and the many volunteers of the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation restored took to the air to the cheers of more than 2,500 spectators, and carried aloft with it the childlike joy and wonder of all who watched.

The weather was perfect for flying, the kind that autumn does best: deep blue skies; white, white puffy clouds; and a light wind, right down the runway. There were brass bands, hamburgers, ice cream, educational booths, and an old-car show featuring Model Ts, Maxwells, REOs, Overlands, and even famed-racer Barney Oldfield’s 1903 Oldsmobile.

You have to be a pretty special person to be able to sit in Barney Oldfield’s 1903 Oldsmobile, and the car’s current owner, Roger Garnett, recognized that this little girl was indeed such a person right off the bat.

It was a little like some kind of paradise from long-ago America. Even the speeches from dignitaries were interesting and included Major General Mike Hall (USAF, retired), the airport’s director; Dr. Bill Thibault, the man who donated Tommy to the IAHF; Patrick Moylan, a representative from BorgWarner (the “Morse” of Thomas Morse was the forerunner of the powertrain company); and even Ben Joas, the great-great-grandnephew of Roy Larson, the Wisconsin barnstormer who originally ordered Tommy from the Army surplus depot in Texas in the very early Twenties.

Tommy’s 80-hp nine-cylinder rotary LeRhone engine is hand propped and run up before the centennial flight; chocks and a tether keep the biplane in place.

Over the past few months, you have become familiar with the story of this Thomas-Morse S-4B in the pages of Hemmings Motor News and The Hemmings Daily… of how it had been manufactured on the shores of Cayuga Lake in Ithaca, New York, in 1917, as the first model purpose-built as an advanced trainer intended to prepare American pilots for fighting in the skies over Europe in World War I… and how, eventually, a group of visionary aviation enthusiasts found it on the West Coast and brought it back to Ithaca in 2013… and then how they restored it, in part, in the very same factory and on the very same equipment that had built it so long ago.

It was very important to the members of the IAHF that Ithaca have a Tommy to celebrate the city’s role in the history of aviation, and that it not be a mere model. To be a “real airplane” they felt it must fly, and thus they set about performing a complete ground-up restoration — and where necessary reconstruction — of the hundred-year-old rag-and-wood biplane.

This photo contains only a handful of the many people who helped Tommy into the air, from volunteers, to donors, to local machine shops, and supportive spouses and families.

While many of the volunteers had experience with various aspects that would be necessary to the process — engine mechanics, engineering, textile arts, wood working, etc. — when it came to airplanes, none had ever done anything more than build models. And so, a great deal of faith, research, trial and error, and collaboration were required.

After each of Tommy’s cylinders are hand primed with a squirt of fuel (there are nine, not 12 as the gentleman in the clip says), it hums down the grass strip between the airport’s runway and taxiway and up into the air.

It was also important, the IAHF felt, that as many generations as possible be involved with the restoration, and this was born out over the years as everyone from eight-year-olds to octogenarians helped out with skill-level-appropriate tasks.

It was also born out as the history of this particular Thomas-Morse was researched and led to meetings with the great- and great-great-grand descendants of some of its past barnstorming owners, which not only yielded important information for the project, but also a flesh-and-blood connection to the airplane’s past.

This is not a sight you’d ever see on a mere exhibit in a museum, nor is it something you’d encounter on any modern airplane: castor oil, streaking back from the cowling’s seams and dripping on the airport apron. Rotaries use a total-loss oiling system, and castor oil was chosen as a lubricant because, as a vegetable oil, it could be fed into the engine mixed along with the fuel without breaking down.

Tommy is one of only 13 S-4s known to exist; it is considered to be one of the two most correct examples, the other being at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Rhinebeck, New York (which was instrumental in Tommy’s restoration), and now it is the only one in flying condition anywhere in the world.

These old biplanes are not like their modern counterparts. They do not, as this reporter’s long-ago flight instructor told him, “Want to fly.” Aerodynamically, they do (mostly), but they tend to be tail heavy, and their rotary engines — with their centrifugally generated forces and finicky and demanding method of speed control — mean that it takes a special kind of pilot to keep them in the air and not on fire, and, like the Tommys, there are only a handful or two of these special folks in the world.

Pilot Ken Cassens, moments after a very successful flight, says a few words about what it was like to take Tommy up. 

Luckily, Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome didn’t just have an old S-4 that the IAHF could study, it had a man with the right stuff to fly one. Ken Cassens has been buzzing around the clouds since he was 16 and has logged thousands of hours on old-type airplanes. He was even the chief mechanic on Rhinebeck’s project to build a flying replica of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis.

There will be one more article to come here in The Daily, looking at what it took to restore the frame and fabric body of Tommy, but for now, this reporter would like to say that seeing this plane climb into the blue sky with a whole community of people actively wishing it aloft, was one of the single-most purely good things he has seen in a very long time.

Watching Tommy up in that perfect sky, you couldn’t help wondering about the pilot… How? How, on such a glorious day, in such a wonderful airplane, and with the hopes and joy of so many people up there with you, do you ever make the decision to land?

Perhaps, at least in the hearts of those who gazed upward, the answer is one that has been applied to a variety of heroes of the air who’ve gone missing in action… “He is flying still…”