Unwinding with Booze
In typical fashion, Tommy and his fellow blue collar workers in the construction trades ended their days by visiting a local tavern. The handwork and long hours involved with being steamfitter required some time to unwind before heading home to engage in domestic duties. Joe’s Bar on 191st Street was a frequent hangout for Tommy Fitz and his coworkers. One night a debate raged among the bar’s patrons. Was it possible to fly from New Jersey to Washington Heights in 15 minutes? Full of the drink, Tommy accepted the challenge and left the bar. He headed across the Hudson River to Teeterboro Airport.
On Saturday night, September 29, 1956, Thomas Fitzpatrick arrived at Teeterboro, selected a small red and white Cessna 140, and began his flight. He flew the plane over Washington Heights and landed it near Joe’s Bar on St. Nicholas Avenue near 191st street. The drunk pilot was able to maneuver the plane’s 32 foot wing span and land it safely on the roadway lined on either side by buildings. He then taxied the plane up to Joe’s Bar, shut off the engine, and went inside for a celebratory beer just before the 3 am last call.
A plane landing on a Manhattan street at 3 am garnered the attention of the local police. The police arrived at Joe’s Bar where Fitz told them that he had suffered “unexpected engine trouble” and was forced to land. He admitted to borrowing the plane because, while drinking, he suddenly had “an urge to fly.” After the police aviation department examined the plane, they determined that there was no engine trouble and Tommy Fitz was simply flying drunk. He was arrested and the plane was dismantled and moved to a nearby police station.
A judge set Tommy’s bail at $5,000 and charged him with grand larceny, which was a felony, as well as violating the city’s municipal code that forbid landing airplanes on any streets in New York City. The judge stated that “many terrible things could have happened” and he did not want Tommy Fitz to perform such a stunt again. Eventually, the grand larceny charge was dropped when the owner of the plane refused to sign a complaint.
Some in the police department were in awe of Tommy’s drunken accomplishment. One sergeant in the Police Aviation Bureau proclaimed that flying a plane drunk and managing to land it safely between New York buildings was a “100,000 to one shot” and a “feat of aeronautics.” Eventually, Tommy was found guilty and fined $100. His pilot’s license was suspended for six months. After his late-night flight, Tommy Fitz claimed he had no desire to fly again and never renewed his license.