The discovery in the museum’s archives of a course catalog for the Thomas School of Aviation - one of the first civilian flight academies in the country – sparked development of the living history character who is the one constant in the scene-shifting, fast-moving series of learn-at-home series about enterprise and culture in World War I-era Tompkins County.
The Old Flight Instructor is my best guess at who was teaching “Aviation for Sport, War and Business,” as the catalog promises, a scant 15 years after the Wright brothers’ launch.
It was an exciting time to be in Ithaca: The Thomas brothers employed more than a thousand skilled workers, building hundreds of Tommy trainers for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The Wharton brothers brought famous names of the silent film industry to their studios in Renwick (now Stewart) Park. True enough, World War I raged on in Europe, and the influenza epidemic was spreading across the land.
But what a time to be alive here!
I was able to perform the Old Flight Instructor skit, subtitled “Learn to Fly Tommy – First Lesson Free,” just a few times to museum audiences before the lockdown began. Zoom performances continued through spring and summer (distance dinner theater anyone?) until Executive Director Ben Sandberg ordered up a videotape session in front of Tommy. A grant application to cover five, learn-at-home episodes was successful.
All characters in the series are real and thoroughly researched. Oliver Thomas really did give tours of the Brindley Street airplane factory (company offices were upstairs). Edith Day, star of “A Romance of the Air,” was impressed with the Tommy that shared credits in her silent film. Lansing-born astronomer David Todd touted “canals” on Mars as proof of extra-terrestial agriculture – although he failed to teach celestial navigation by speakerphone to Thomas School students. And Cornell’s James A. Meissner shot down numerous enemy aircraft – while colliding in midair with at least one.
Only the Old Flight Instructor is speculative.
He would be 130 years old this month. So please pay heed as he adjusts the mask over his snowy white beard, peers at his virtual students through foggy wire-rimmed lenses, and growls “A high-flying welcome to the Class of 1918 in the Thomas School of Aviation.”
He still thinks it’s then.
H. Roger Segelken is a volunteer docent with The History Center
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