Happy National Aviation Day!

Happy National Aviation Day! Believe it or not, Ithaca, New York has a deep history with aviation. If you live in or frequently visit Ithaca, you may be aware that our airport, the Ithaca Tompkins International Airport (ITH) has been in business since the 1950’s. However, aviation in Ithaca and neighboring towns dates back to the very early 1900s. In fact, quite a few significant milestones took place well before anyone imagined our current airport.

The Wright Brothers

You may remember learning about the Wright brothers: the brothers known for developing and flying the first successful airplane, but they also inspired many people across the country to pursue aviation. Among those people were the students at Cornell University, who kickstarted aviation in Ithaca by creating the aeronautical club, which consisted of 80 members by the time the Wright brothers had achieved the first sustained powered flight in 1903.

The Thomas Brothers

Ithaca’s second significant involvement in aviation occurred in 1914. During this time, the Ithaca Board of Trade recognized the potential in aviation development. They acted on this motivation by inviting aircraft designers, William T. and Oliver W. Thomas or “the Thomas brothers” to Ithaca to set up an aircraft manufacturing plant.

After the plant was set up, the area that is now known as Cass Park had hangars erected to facilitate aircraft operations. This began with a rail track at that site to launch float planes into the water. With the construction of land planes came an expansion of the “airport” into a landing strip. Late named the Ithaca Municipal Airport is believed to be only the second airport to exist in New York State.

Towards the end of World War I, The Thomas brothers started the Thomas-Morse Aircraft Corporation with the financial backing of Frank L. Morse, who founded the Morse Chain Company. Their greatest success was the production of a single-seater trainer known as the S-4 series or “Scout” – a model of which hangs from the ceiling in the new gate area of the Ithaca Tompkins Intl. Airport. At this time, around 1,200 people were employed either in the Brindley Street factory or in the Morse Chain aircraft assembly annex up on South Hill. However, “Scout” was the only really successful aircraft to come out of the Thomas-Morse factory.

In a quirk of fate, the government contract for the second round of “Scout” production was given to a startup company with ready access to Sitka Spruce, the preferred structural material for aircraft of the day. The contract launched the Boeing Aircraft Company! Imagine what may have happened if those Sitka Spruce trees grew here! The Thomas-Morse Aircraft Corporation struggled after losing the “Scout” contract and in 1929, they were bought by the Consolidated Aircraft Company in Buffalo. The loss remained and for years a dedicated group of volunteers wanted to bring “Tommy” home.

Their initiative to bring “Tommy” home by locating a “Scout” and restoring it to flying condition was successfully completed in 2018 by the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation (IAHF). On September 29th of 2018, after 14 years of restoration, Tommy flew above the Finger Lakes for the first time this century. The flight marked the culminations of IAHF’s decade-long “Tommy Come Home” campaign. The plane was flown by Ken Cassens, a pilot from Rhinebeck, NY familiar with flying rotor engine planes. Over 3,000 people gathered at the Ithaca Tompkins Intl. Airport to watch Tommy fly. The plane is now on long-term loan from IAHF to the History Center in Tompkins County. Go check it out – the museum is now open!

The “Tommy” model hanging from the ceiling in the new gate area

World War II

The next step in aviation in Ithaca occurred in 1927 when Herbert “Pete” Peters used an existing wooden hangar at the municipal airport and several other single-engine aircraft and began offering charter flights and student instruction. By the beginning of World War II, Peters and his wife, Dorothy, had taken on the responsibility of flight training for Cornell’s Reserve Officer Trainee Corps (ROTC) program.

The Finger Lakes Flying Service, owned by Alfred Cook and Richard Compton, eventually took over from Peters and operated the Municipal Airport until the early 1960s when the airport closed down, having been replaced by the new airport on East Hill – the present-day Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport.

In 1948, operations between Robinson Airlines, the airline that operated between Ithaca, Teterboro, and New Jersey, were transferred from the Ithaca Municipal Airport to ITH, which was then the East Hill Airport. Since the County Board purchased the East Hill Airport from Cornell in 1956, renaming it the Tompkins County Airport, airlines servicing Ithaca reflect the pedigree of a growing industry. The airport has hosted the likes of Mohawk, Allegheny, Piedmont, Empire, US Air (ways) and now American, Delta, and United Airlines!

Aviation in Present-Day Ithaca

Ithaca has gone through a number of steps to reach where we are now in terms of aviation. The aviation community in Tompkins County is very strong and continues to thrive. The Ithaca Intl. Airport is fully functional during the winter, has security systems up to date, making it a competitive option in the area. ITH recently completed a $34 million dollar renovation project, which included an expanded terminal, additional jet bridges, a customs facility, and more. The customs facility, which is nearly complete, will be able to accommodate general aviation flying in from other countries. There are also options for flying lessons with the East Hill Flying Club – learn more about learning to fly here. ITH is a progressive airport with a mission to keep our global community connected. The future of aviation in Ithaca has a lot of potential for continuous development and innovation for years to come.

Choose to fly Ithaca; Convenient, Clean, Connected!

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