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by Vince Clarida
     When discussing the subject of early American aviation pioneers, the first names to pop up would most probably be the Wright Brothers, followed by Glenn H. Curtiss and Glenn L. Martin. It may surprise many of our readers that another aviation pioneer lived for many years right here in Daytona Beach. His name was William T. Thomas Sr. who was involved with developing and manufacturing some of the earliest airplanes produced in the United States. After an illustrious career in the aircraft industry in New York, Thomas retired to Daytona's warm climate in the 1930s when he purchased a stately riverfront home on North Halifax Avenue. He and his family lived there until he passed away in 1966 at age 78.
     Thomas was born in Rosario, Argentina to British parents. After graduating as a mechanical engineer in 1908 from Central Technical College in London, he immigrated to the United States, where he was hired by the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company in Hammondsport, New York, to assist in the design of motorcycle and aircraft engines. While working independently (out of a barn), Thomas designed, and with the help of two mechanics, built a successful pusher biplane in 1909. The craft was powered by a 22 horsepower engine and had an unusual four-wheel landing gear. Flights lasting as long as 20 minutes were made, sometimes carrying a passenger. Thomas left the Curtiss firm and was joined by his brother Oliver in 1910, opening their own company called Thomas Brothers Aeroplane Co. in Hammondsport.
     These were exciting times as the idea of powered flight was capturing the public's imagination, and work was progressing on both sides of the Atlantic to develop more functional airplanes. The competition was fierce and new aeronautical records of all kinds were constantly being established.
The Thomas firm then moved to Bath, New York where they built a number of types of biplanes, most notable the model TA pusher. On October 31, 1912, a model TA established an American endurance record carrying a passenger for 3 hours and 51 minutes. In June 1913, a model TA with a larger engine, climbed to 13,000 feet to set a new world altitude record. This feat was accomplished by Thomas Bros. chief test pilot Walter Johnson.
     With the aviation business growing, the Thomas brothers started the Thomas Brothers School of Aviation. This was the first such school to be chartered by the Board of Regents in New York. In 1913 they continued to develop several more new planes. The most significant of these was the T2 tractor biplane, for which the British Admiralty placed an order for 24 of the craft. An auxiliary Thomas Aeromotor Company was formed to provide engines.
With this new success, in 1914 the brothers moved their operations again, this time to Ithaca, New York, on the south side of Lake Cayuga. This location was ideally suited for seaplane experiments. During the following few years, the company developed additional biplanes and also seaplanes for the U.S. Navy. Their newest S-4 Scout was to play an important part of the company's history.
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