HAGERSTOWN — Raised on a farm with a strong work ethic and a knack for all things mechanical, Thurman Sizer “T.S.” Alphin was known for working with his hands and rarely being idle. He also developed a love of airplanes.
“He loved fixing things,” Mary Beth Alphin said of her father, an aircraft mechanic and inspector who founded Alphin Aircraft.
“He wanted us to share his love of flying,” Mary Beth said. “He was fortunate that his vocation was his avocation. I honestly believe my father enjoyed every single day of working.”
Flying was so much a part of his life that the family dogs were named Piper and Cessna in tribute to those planes.
T.S. Alphin died Sept. 9 at the age of 93. His funeral drew former employees and pilot friends, his children said.
“One thing I can say is he is one terrific airplane mechanic,” pilot friend George “Pete” Warrenfeltz said of T.S. “He was known up and down the East Coast.”
“He knew more about airplanes and how to make them work than most of the FAA inspectors,” Warrenfeltz said. “I just can’t say enough.”
As a teenager, T.S. had an entrepreneurial spirit and sense of adventure that stayed with him throughout his life.
Thurman Alphin was born in 1917 and grew up on the family farm in Buchanan, Va., outside of Roanoke. He was the only one of the seven children in his family not given a middle name, so he eventually took his mother’s maiden name, Sizer, as his.
In early adulthood, his name was shortened to T.S. and that stuck.
At age 18, he started his own business, beginning with an old dump truck he refurbished and used to haul stone and asphalt for the Blue Ridge Parkway.
When T.S. learned that he could make a dollar an hour fixing airplanes — more than he was making driving trucks — he headed to Curtiss-Wright Technical Institute in Glendale, Calif., for an almost two-year training program.
T.S. then worked at the Middletown Air Depot in Middletown, Pa., inspecting aircraft before they were sent off to the European Theater during World War II, Mary Beth said.
It was in Middletown that he met his wife, Mary Louise Bullock. The couple was married for 60 years when she died in 2003.
T.S. had taken a photograph of Mary Louise on their second date and carried that picture in his wallet all his life, his children recently learned.
The Alphins had two sons, one who died in 2001, a daughter, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
In 1946, as World War II was coming to an end, so was T.S.’s job, Mary Beth said. He started job hunting and came to Hagerstown after hearing that Fairchild was hiring inspectors. He was hired on the spot during an interview, Mary Beth said.
She said he purchased property before his wife even visited Hagerstown. T.S. built the family home on Pennsylvania Avenue himself and had the shell of the house completed before he moved the family here.
T.S. lived in that house from 1946 until June 2010, when he went to Broadmore Assisted Living.
Mary Louise taught at Fountaindale Elementary School once their children got older.
While employed at Fairchild, T.S. also worked as director of maintenance at Hagerstown Airport. In 1948, he started his own small aircraft repair business, Alphin Aircraft, which at its height had 44 employees, Mary Beth said.
He went through three rounds of layoffs at Fairchild and after the third one, his company was doing well enough for him to quit the Fairchild job and focus on his company. Alphin Aircraft was sold in 1997 and T.S. officially retired at age 80.
Alphin Aircraft became known by aircraft owners and insurance companies for the fair-priced and good work that they did, the family said. T.L. Alphin, T.S.’s son, said many aircraft mechanics learned their trade from his father.
“It was a center of small aircraft repair,” T.L. said. “Alphin Aircraft Inc. was the largest repair facility of its type in the U.S.”
The company did complete work on small airplanes, including structural repairs, painting, engine overhauls and complete electronic service.
“When he said he would repair the airplane for a certain amount of money, you could be sure it wouldn’t exceed that,” Donald Lee said. “He was a man of his word ... He was well-respected in the industry.”
Lee, who now lives in Florida, worked with T.S. when he lived in King of Prussia, Pa. Lee was president of Aviation Marine Services and investigated aviation accidents.
He said an insurance company referred him to Alphin Aircraft and once he and T.S. met in the 1970s, they became “fast friends” and did a lot of work together.
T.S. also acquired two Supplemental Type Certifications (STC) from the Federal Aviation Administration, similar to a patent, for modifications he designed that were approved for aircraft.
He was a designated examiner for the FAA for those taking the test to become aircraft and power-plant mechanics, T.L. said.
T.S. also was involved with the display of aircraft parts in the observation lounge at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, T.L. said.
The more T.S. worked on airplanes, the more fascinated he became with them. That fascination led him to learn to fly. He earned his pilot’s license in 1947. All three Alphin children also are pilots.
“Flying was always a great treat,” Mary Beth said.
T.S. loved to introduce people to flying. His wife, however, did not share that love. She suffered from motion sickness just riding an elevator and didn’t like the “bouncing” in small airplanes, family members said.
Once she overcame that fear and went on her first commercial flight to Hawaii in 1970 with her husband, they began traveling by air more often.
“Mother said she often felt he had two wives — airplanes and her,” Mary Beth said.
T.S. had many opportunities to travel. Insurance companies hired him to repair and inspect planes in such places as Puerto Rico, Iceland, the Bahamas and South America.
He also used his flying skills for personal travel. His children remember fishing trips in Canada where the lodging was only accessible by plane.
T.S. wasn’t a fisherman, so he spent his time flying people between lakes.
Mary Beth said her father wasn’t into sports or games, but they always did things together. She remembers flying kites as a child, with enough open space around them to use two spools of string.
T.S. thought it took too long to reel in the kites, so in typical fashion, he put his mechanical skills to use and came up with an electric drill rig to speed the process.
As children, they worked with T.S. in his shop. At some point, all three Alphin children worked for Alphin Aircraft, with Jim eventually opening his own aircraft repair shop.
Both shops were sold and still are in business, said Carolyn Motz, director of Hagerstown Regional Airport. She credits the two Alphin shops as the reason Hagerstown has such skilled aircraft mechanics.
T.S. also was known for his cooking and Mary Beth said he probably did all of the cooking the last 15 years of their mother’s life. He preferred cooking in quantity and together, the couple cooked for the youth fellowship at their church.
T.S. and his wife were members at The Presbyterian Church of Hagerstown until 2002, when they transferred their membership to St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Williamsport.
“They had a solid marriage. They were very close. They were happy together,” T.L. said.