Flying has captured the human imagination for centuries. Dreaming about flying above the trees led to an entirely new industry at the onset of the 20th century. Men and women designed planes that would carry people and cargo to far off places. New industries evolved to accommodate travelers in a quickly changing world to make flying as safe and free from worry and stress as possible.
Whenever there is an issue regarding a flight of any kind, it grabs our attention. A plane crash, mechanical issues, airport power outages, storms, even fights among passengers make headlines. Yet, what if someone stole a small aircraft, took off without control tower clearance, then landed it on a busy Manhattan street, got out and went into a bar to have a drink? In today’s era of fear, the pilot would be arrested as a terrorist. Imagine an aviator pulling this stunt in 1956, during the height of the Cold War and drunk. This is the story of one such aviator.
The Flying Bug
Each year, the human love for flying has millions of people cramming onto commercial flights and flying near and far. Shockingly, there are very few commercial flight mishaps. The love for being above the canopy and higher than the birds drove Wilbur and Orville Wright on a quest to fly their “heavier-than-air aircraft” on December 17, 1903, off of the dunes near Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. The bicycle repairmen sparked an intense and world-wide quest to make flying as natural as taking the train.
Pilots became immediate celebrities in the early 20th century. The German Air Force fighter pilot, Manfred von Richthofen, known as the “Red Baron,” captured the imagination of many during the First World War. Images of warplanes fighting in Europe were shown in movie house news reels. Charles Lindbergh flew a successful solo fight across the Atlantic from America to France in 1927. Everywhere he went he was greeted as a hero and cities threw him ticker-tape parades and gave him keys to their cities.
Just as the world was heading toward economic collapse, commercial airlines were forming. Two large ones were Trans World Airlines, which started flights in 1926, and Pan American World Airways that began flying in 1927. Technological advancements continued even as the world suffered from economic perils. When the Second World War began, pilots and mechanics became an essential part of both the Axis and Allied war efforts. Wars provided men and women with opportunities to learn all about flying.
Thomas Fitzpatrick was one such boy. He grew up in Washington Heights, a neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan, and was born on April 24, 1930. Tommy lied about his age and enlisted into the Marine Corps and fought in the Pacific during the Second World War. When the war ended he was honorably discharged and returned home. Then, in 1949, he joined the US Army and fought in the Korean War. Corporal Fitzpatrick received the Silver Star and Purple Heart after he was “seriously wounded” and attempted to rescue fellow soldiers “despite severe pain and loss of blood.” Again he was honorably discharged and returned home from war.
Tommy Fitz, as he was called, became a steamfitter in his civilian life. The work required long hours working in the hot and cramped underbelly of New York buildings. On the side he was a part-time airplane mechanic at the Tetterboro School of Aeronautics in New Jersey. He was also learning how to fly and logging in hours for his pilot’s license. By the age of 26, Tommy Fitz was a veteran of two wars, was a union steamfitter, and was involved in the fast-growing aviation industry.