If you go to Manhattan and travel far, far uptown, you may find yourself on the corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and West 191st Street. Look around and you’ll see a pharmacy, liquor store, grocery store, and Dominican restaurant on the corners, and a lot of other stores lining the two intersecting streets. On the roads, you’ll see trucks, cars, and buses. But if you were there on September 30, 1956, you would have seen something else:
That image comes from this New York Times article, but the picture alone hardly does the story justice.
On the evening of September 29th, a New Jersey man named Tommy Fitzpatrick went out drinking in the New York City neighborhood described above. The booze got the better of the man known best as Tommy Fitz, and our hero — for lack of a better term — started making outlandish statements. Ultimately, Fitz bet another patron that he could get from New Jersey to New York in fifteen minutes (per Wikipedia), a feat often difficult even by today’s standards. The other guy took the bet, likely seeing it as a sure win, and Fitz went into action. Fitz traveled to the Teterboro School of Aeronautics in northern New Jersey, stole/borrowed a single engine plane, and, less than fifteen minutes later, landed on 191st Street, not far from the bar — winning the bet. (The plane’s owner decided not to press charges, so Fitz got away with the stunt by paying a $100 fine. Whether the bet was for more than that has been lost to history.)
If that sounds unbelievable, rest assured you aren’t the only person to think that the tale of Tommy Fitz’s drunken flying caper is too fantastic to be true. Just to be clear, the story is true — but not everyone believed him. On October 4, 1958, Fitz witnessed this disbelief first-hand: while at another bar, just a few blocks south of 191st and St. Nicholas, the other patrons heard Fitzpatrick tell his story — and called him a liar.
In the modern era of smartphones and instant access to all sorts of information — first-hand and press accounts in particular — such a dispute could be resolved with a few taps and swipes. But in 1958, Fitz had no such tools at his disposal. So how does he prove that he once stole a plane, drunk, and landed it on a New York City street?
Easy! All he had to do was do it again.
So, he did.
The AP recapped the stunt:
For the second time in a little more than two years, Fitzpatrick told police Saturday, he took a plane from Teterboro Airport, N.J., while drunk and made a perfect landing in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.
“It’s the lousy drink,” he said, summing things up.
This time, Fitzpatrick didn’t get off so easily, though — he was sentenced to six months in prison for his repeat performance.
From the Archives: How to Fly with a Cello: It’s harder than you think.
Related: “101 Bets You Will Always Win: Jaw-Dropping Illusions, Remarkable Riddles, Scintillating Science Stunts, and Cunning Conundrums That Will Astound and Amaze Everyone You Know” by Richard Wiseman. The book just came out but the author has a collection of YouTube videos of similar tricks — here’s one such video.