Once an airplane factory, always an airplane factory

The Significant Elements team (David Patorello, Peter Walze, Ella Ingram, Sara Johnson, Don Funke, Antonia Vichier-Guerre and Duane Handicutt) pose in front of their building, originally used for the construction of the Thomas-Morse aircraft in 1918.

Thanks to the efforts of Don Funke and the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation, parts of a Thomas-Morse Scout airplane from World War I are being rebuilt in the Significant Elements building on Center street in Ithaca, with teenage volunteers doing much of the work. The youth are working to restore some of the landing gear and elevators of the plane; the main body of the plane is being restored in Dryden.

They’ve been working on the plane twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in their warehouse, making slow but steady progress.

“Everybody has kept the faith,” said Funke. “I think we proved that it is going to take a little longer than we thought, but it is happening.”

At Significant Elements, Funke teamed up with manager Sara Johnson to take advantage of the youth employment services. Known as “Tommy,” the Thomas-Morse 54-B Scout left the Emerson Power Transmission factory on Aurora Street in Ithaca in the spring of 1918.

Knowing the Significant elements building was one of the original Thomas-Morse buildings in the city, Funke approached Johnson about using it as a Tommy restoration site. In the past four years, Significant Elements has developed a job-training program for youth and young adults with “barriers to employment,” according to Johnson.

“During that time period, we established our workshop, and we have the ability to do repairs on furniture, building repairs and restoration,” said Johnson. “It seemed like the perfect fit to work on an aircraft that was partly produced in this facility, or at least designed in this facility, and bring it back to its original location.”

Significant Elements trains young workers in the preservation trade, helping them learn job readiness, introductory preservation, as well as retail and customer service skills. Participants typically work on basic restoration, so it was very exciting for the store to get a project as big as a Tommy aircraft.

“This is our first hands on effort with them and we hope to continue to work on small parts on the plane as they progress," said Johnson. “I think (the project) is fabulous. It’s really exciting that we can contribute to a restoration of an important part of Ithaca’s history. It’s a beautiful piece of machinery.”

In 2010, after a 12 year search led by Funke to acquire one, the plane was donated by Dr. Williams Thibault of San Diego. According to Funke, the plane was in “remarkably good condition,” and now the volunteers are working to restore it, see it fly one time, and then donate it to The History Center in Tompkins County for all to see. Finding one is very difficult, and acquiring one is even harder. According to Funke, the only way you can get a Tommy is via trade, as most collectors aren’t willing to part with one for just money.

They eventually found Thibault, a doctor who had been saving his Tommy for a retirement project, but who had decided that was no longer feasible. Funke learned by sheer coincidence that Thibault had family living in the Ithaca area and was able to convince him of the significance of building one here.

Funke also said that The History Center is looking to make Tommy their centerpiece.

“It’ll be a high for so many of us that have been a part of it,” said Funke, of finally watching Tommy take flight. “The amount of hours we’ve put in, it’s astounding. But if it wasn’t going to fly, we wouldn’t be working on it. I’ve polled my volunteers closely, because they knew there was some risk in doing it. People ask, why would we risk this artifact? And I say, because it’s an airplane. That’s what motivates me and motivates all of us. You’ve got to see it fly.”

The foundation is working on the main body plane at their warehouse on Southworth Rd in Dryden. Funke says it is about three years from completion, but most of what is left is just “little details.”

“All the heavy woodworking is done,” said Funke. “But it’s like buying an old car, it’s 95-percent done and it has 85-percent to go. We are terribly excited about making this happen. We want to fly it one time, mission accomplished. Then for the next 100 years, it can be on display.”

Thomas-Morse was an American aircraft manufacturer until 1929. Originally started by brothers William and Oliver Thomas in Hammondsport in 1910, the Thomas Brothers Company bounced around from Hornell to Bath before eventually landing in Ithaca.

In 1917, the company merged with the Morse-Chain Company, was renamed and began selling airplanes to the United States Army.

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