Ithaca's Early Aviation History

Ithaca played a key role in the early aviation industry with the production of the Thomas Morse S-4 Scout biplane. All of the sites associated with the production and testing of the World War I-era plane are still extant.

Ithaca's Early Aviation History

Ithaca, New York 14850, United States

Created By: Ithaca Heritage

Tour Information

For a brief time in the early twentieth century, Ithaca was a thriving center of the young aviation industry. The Thomas brothers—W.T. Thomas and Oliver W. Thomas—were aviation pioneers who produced early seaplanes. They came to Ithaca to establish an airplane factory on Brindley Street in 1914. The brothers soon joined with the Morse Chain Company to form the Thomas-Morse Aircraft Corporation. The fledgling company produced hundreds of the World War I-era “Tommy” S-4 Scout planes right here in Ithaca, at the Brindley Street plant and at Morse Chain’s South Hill factory. The Thomas brothers also operated a flying school from a flying field next to Cayuga Lake at what is today Cass Park. The Thomas-Morse company briefly ran an experimental engine factory at what is today the Significant Elements architectural salvage warehouse and Historic Ithaca’s office. During World War I, Cornell University's New York State Armory and Drill Hall (now known as Barton Hall) served as an airplane hangar and site for classes in military aviation science.

The Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation honored Ithaca's aviation history by restoring a vintage 1918 Tommy plane and flew it on its centennial flight over the Ithaca Tompkins Regional airport in September 2018. The restored Tommy Plane is on permanet loan to The History Center in Tompkins County and is on display in the Exhibit Hall on the Ithaca Commons.

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What You'll See on the Tour

The Thomas brothers—W.T. Thomas and Oliver W. Thomas—came to Ithaca in 1914 and set up an aviation company. According to pilot and longtime aviation buff Charles L. Smith, they established a landing field on what was once a peach orchar... Read more
The Thomas Brothers operated a state-accredited flying school until the U.S. entered the war. Initially the school operated from Conesus Lake, where students flew Thomas airplanes on floats. When the factory moved to Ithaca, the flying sc... Read more
The 1882 bird’s eye map of Ithaca shows an extensive complex of multistory factory buildings and smokestacks at the site now known as the Aeroplane Factory. The Thomas Brothers Aeroplane Company began renting a factory at this site in Dec... Read more
The three-story frame building that now houses Significant Elements architectural salvage warehouse was built in 1888. It was originally a factory for the Electric Seamless Hosiery Company. The factory used knitting machines to produce cott... Read more
In 1906, the Morse Chain Company built an 80,000-square-foot plant on this site on South Aurora Street. Between 1914 and 1916, the factory quadrupled in size. In 1916, the Thomas-Morse airplane division, the Thomas-Morse Airplane Corporatio... Read more
The Thomas-Morse Scout on display in The History Center was donated to the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation (IAHF) in 2010 by Dr. William Thibault. It was restored by volunteers over ten years under the direction of the IAHF, and flew an... Read more
Architect Lewis F. Pilcher designed the Gothic Revival New York State Armory and Drill Hall, and it was completed in 1917. It served as a military drill hall for the Department of Military Science and functioned as an airplane hangar during... Read more
In 1957, Ruth Carol Taylor made aviation history by becoming America’s first African American flight attendant. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, and raised in upstate New York, Taylor grew up on a farm and graduated from Trumansburg High Sc... Read more
After a ten year restoration project by the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation (IAHF), the Thomas-Morse S4-C Scout made a public flight on September 29, 2018, at the current Tompkins County airport.  The plane, and original "Tommy Scout" ... Read more


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