Today 61 years ago.
It was close to midnight on 3 October 1958.
Thomas Edward Fitzpatrick sat in a crowded bar in Manhattan, satisfying his craving for alcohol to momentarily forget about the troubles of the world.
Sounds familiar? It is.
If you haven’t read the following topic yet, you must read it before returning to this one.
30 September 1956 — the true “Hold My Beer” moment.’
In summary, at 3 AM on 30 September 1956, Thomas had stolen a Cessna 140 from the Teterboro School of Aeronautics and landed it on the streets of New York City, stunning his friends at the bar who had bet a short while earlier that he wouldn’t be able to do it. The owner of the Cessna was so impressed with the stunt that he refused to press charges, with Thomas getting away with a mere $100 fine. The entire city had celebrated Thomas’ flight, with the New York Times lauding it as “a feat of aeronautics” and “a fine landing”.’
So when Thomas’ friends at the bar didn’t believe his monumental achievement, he was dumbfounded.
The conversation went something like this:
Other guy: That’s bulls**t, Tommy. That kind of thing stays in Hollywood.
Thomas: You don’t trust me?
Other guy: Hell no. I’ve taken two beers tonight. You’ve had more than ten.
Thomas: How much money you gonna bet?
Other guy: Bet what?
Thomas: Hold my beer.
Thomas stood up, walked out of the bar, and drove drunk to the Teterboro School of Aeronautics. He looked at the ten aircraft parked there, and proceeded…
Some 20 minutes after midnight, the Teterboro control tower operator watched as a Cessna 120 took off from the field’s west taxiway without navigation lights, proper clearance or radio contact with him.
Twenty-five minutes later - Harvey Roffe, 30, a bus driver for the Surface Transportation Co., was parked at the end of his run at Amsterdam Avenue and 191st Street when the plane came in for a landing, headed south.
"I just got into my seat when all of a sudden I heard something that sounded like a large fan,” he said. “I looked in my rearview mirror and saw this plane coming at me.”
“He landed alongside of me. The plane hit the ground and bounced 20 feet in the air. I thought he was going to take off again. Then he hit the ground again and taxied down to 187th Street."
Roffe said he jumped from his bus because he thought he was going to be hit by flying glass. Then he ran down to 187th St., but by the time he reached the plane the pilot was gone.
“God forbid if I ever hit a plane,” Roffe said. “What could I say at the safety hearing?”
Another motorist, John Johnson, 34, saw what he would later tell police: “I saw something coming down. I didn’t know what to imagine; I slammed on my brakes, and a plane skidded over the top of my car and made a perfect lauding ahead of me. I saw a man get out and run toward St. Nicholas Avenue on 187th Street,” who he described as tall, blond, and husky wearing a gray suit.
Responding patrolmen pushed the plane to the southwest corner of the intersection out of the way of traffic, placing the tail section on the sidewalk with the nose and wheels extending into the gutter. Lieutenant Kenneth Johnston of the Police Aviation Bureau noticed the plane had three-quarters-full fuel tanks and was in perfect working order.
Noticing the parallels between the 1956 landing and this occurrence, the police called Thomas to the Wadsworth police station for questioning. At first, he denied he had anything to do with the flight – but then he gave in, according to the officers, when witnesses identified him and when he was told his fingerprints matched those on the plane.
Thomas was charged with grand larceny, the same administrative code violation as in 1956, and numerous Civil Aeronautics regulation violations, namely dangerous and reckless operation of an aircraft, landing within city limits under other than emergency conditions, and flying without a license. After having “come down like a marauder from the skies endangering the lives of hundreds of persons” in the words of Ruben Levy, the magistrate at Mr. Fitzpatrick’s criminal arraignment. Fitzpatrick was held on $10,000 bail.
Judge John Mullen allowed Fitzpatrick to plead guilty on January 26, 1959, to a misdemeanor - bringing stolen property into the state - to cover a two-count indictment which again included grand larceny.
“Your trouble is you do not know when to stop drinking.” Judge Mullen said in his lecture “The last time you paid a $100 fine. If you had been seriously and properly jolted the first time, it’s possible this would not have occurred a second time and maybe you wouldn’t be standing here today. There is no doubt in my mind that you were intoxicated and were in a measure dared by a drinking companion when you were in this silly semi-intoxicated condition."
The judge then noted that Fitzpatrick’s record, aside from the two flights, was “ the best I have ever seen, without a doubt." noting that the New Jersey man was an underage marine corps volunteer and had a good civilian work record.
But, Mullen added, despite the “miraculous" landings on both flights, “you’re not going to make an airstrip out of a New York city street. There is no doubt that making airstrips of New York City streets is fraught with danger.”
To which Thomas simply replied:
“It’s the lousy drink.”
He was jailed for 6 months, after which he returned to his job as a steamfitter, married, had three children and settled into a crime-free life. He died on 14 September 2009, at 79 years old.
Thomas Edward Fitzpatrick will be forever remembered by New York and the aviation community as a legend.
Today, on the 61st anniversary of his second and final flight - one of the greatest achievements of general aviation - I urge the Infinite Flight community to honour this man.