Non-profit group works to restore WWI fighter plane built in Ithaca

ITHACA, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) - The City of Ithaca is known for many things including its waterfalls, the birthplace of the ice cream sundae and its college town atmosphere— but not many know it played a crucial role in aviation history.

Now  that role is about to come full circle as a group of volunteers, history buffs and amateur craftsmen work to restore a plane designed and assembled in Ithaca near the end of World War I.

Tommy, a single-seat fighter plane, was made by the Thomas Morse Aircraft Corporation in April of 1918, and an Ithaca group is hoping to make it fly again.

The plane is being painstakingly rebuilt at the Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport.

Don Funke, who spearheaded the project, said it began with trying to convince a west coast doctor to let go of his precious possession.

“He wanted to restore it and fly it. His ambition was to fly behind a Lerhone engine, and that's what motivated him,” Funke said.

After the doctor's wife and son saw just how serious the group was, he finally agreed to donate it.

“After several years of looking and hoping and wishing and looking up every blind alley, Tommy came home. Actually, it was donated in 2009 it arrived in Ithaca in May of 2010.”

This particular aircraft is one of just two Model B’s left in the world.

The other flew for several years at the old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Dutchess County before a run-in with a fence relegated it to the Aerodrome's museum floor.

Funke wants to see Tommy fly on its 100th anniversary— so in early 2018.

Funke and the crew working on Tommy are five years into their restoration.

“It's a labor of love and we've got dedicated volunteers that you see working here right now that are here two and three times a week doing things that they just enjoy doing>

Many have asked Funke why he does this, and he says because it’s important. “This is part of 100-year-old history, this is living history now, and we’re doing things that your grandfather or your grandfather’s father told you happened here in Ithaca. This is what they did and this is what it looked like, this is what it smelled like, this is what it felt like this is what it sounds like you know?”

After it will hopefully be flown for the public, Tommy will go on permanent display in Ithaca.

If you'd like to learn more about the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation and how you can help with Tommy’s restoration, click here.

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