TOMMY WEBBER, SEAPLANE PILOT


[The following article originally appeared as the July, 2006, installment of "Lake Stories by Michael Gillespie" in the Lake of the Ozarks Business Journal.]

The 1950s were interesting times at the Lake of the Ozarks. Simple roadside attractions were the rule of the day, and that usually included a trip to the dam to sample the various amusements and souvenir shops, and maybe take an excursion boat ride. Those boat rides at the dam had been around since the '30s, and were immensely popular. Beginning in the post-war years a new twist was offered - seaplane rides.

A host of different seaplanes were used over the years. Old postcard views show Republic Seabees, Aeroncas, and Cessnas at the Loc-Wood dock, which would later become the Casino Pier. (Near the end of the era, in the '60s and early '70s a Bell helicopter joined the flying fleet.)

Tommy Webber was among the first seaplane pilots at the dam; some say he was the first. He flew excursion flights from the late '40s through 1956. He captained the Larry Don in its early days and drove speedboats at the dam. But those were merely the final accomplishments of an extraordinary life.

Thomas Bert Webber was born in Great Britain in 1884. In 1909 he witnessed the first airplane crossing of the English Channel. That was at Dover, England. Tommy was 25; he decided then and there to become a pilot. It took four years, but he got his license. A year later World War One broke out in Europe and Tommy became a Royal Air Force pilot. He was shot down over France in 1915.

Hospitalized for seven months with a crushed throat, Webber then went to Canada to train military pilots for the Royal Canadian Air Force. In 1917 he came to the United States and served in the Marine Corps air arm.

After the war Tommy remained in the United States and took up barnstorming. He flew at exhibitions throughout the central states and became a flight instructor. By 1934 he operated his own flying school in Sedalia. He held pilot's license number 1786.

When World War Two broke out, Tommy became a civilian instructor at army air fields in California and Kansas. By war's end he had accumulated some 18,000 flying hours.

Shortly after the end of the war, Webber began piloting excursion flights and boat rides for Glenn Wood, owner of the Loc-Wood boat concession at Bagnell Dam.

Glenn Wood marveled at his new employee. Tommy Webber was well into his sixties, a lean man standing five-foot-seven, with a bronzed face deeply etched by lines of age and experience. He usually wore a boat captain's hat with the edges rolled down in the "thousand hour crush" made famous by World War Two pilots. Pilots that he had trained. Tommy was thought to be the oldest active commercial pilot in the country. His health was excellent; his eyes were sharp. He still retained a British accent.

By the late-'40s, the excursion business at the dam was booming. Interviewed by a Kansas City Star reporter in 1949, Glenn Wood estimated that 100,000 people were riding the boats and planes each summer. When Tommy Webber wasn't flying or piloting the boats, he would hawk the rides over a loudspeaker. "Here you are, folks," he would call out in the King's English. "Right here for those speedboat rides; those thrilling airplane flights. Tickets on sale below, step right along. It's exciting, it's marvelous. See the lakeshore from the skies."

Wood said that Webber "could even stop a school bus with that chatter. They love it!"

The excursion business was still brisk in 1956. On September 27, an elderly couple from Ontario, Canada, visited the strip and talked with Tommy Webber. They had never flown before, but after chatting with the former RAF pilot, they decided that Webber was the kind of man they could trust in the air. So they bought their tickets and soon found themselves a thousand feet above the lake, circling over Horseshoe and Shawnee Bends. Tommy then turned the plane back to land in the waters in front of the dam. He pulled the nose up when just a few feet above the water to lose some airspeed. For a few seconds the nose obstructed his view ahead and to the right. That's where the boat hit him.

An excursion speedboat had come tearing out of the Loc-Wood dock on its usual high speed thrill ride. The boat pilot didn't see the plane flaring overhead. The boat grazed the right pontoon of the plane just as the aircraft settled onto the water. Miraculously, the boat missed the airplane's propeller and tail section.

Webber's plane touched down and slowed to taxiing speed, but something was wrong. The plane began to list; the right pontoon was punctured. Webber cut the engine and the aircraft started to settle into the water on its right side. A second boat came out from the dock to assist. Webber, 72 years old at the time, got the woman passenger out of the plane and into the boat. By that time, the airplane's only door had dipped into the water. Tommy swam under the wing, and through the half-submerged door, to rescue the trapped man inside.

Tommy was unhurt, but it was his last flight. A friend convinced him that after 43 years of flying, it might be time to quit. Webber had logged over 20,000 total hours in the air.

Webber continued to live at Lake Ozark, in a stone house that he built himself. In the spring of 1963, his failing health forced him into a Sedalia rest home. He died on October 10 of that year.

From the days of open cockpits and canvas-covered wings, Tommy Webber had flown for three air forces and had trained hundreds of pilots in two world wars. Later in life he had charmed countless tourists and had taken them on a magical ride over the lake that he had come to love. Most of those gawking sightseers never knew that the man at the controls was truly a legend - an aviation pioneer, and a lake original.

© 2006 by Michael Gillespie. All rights reserved.

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