Pilot Finds Treasured Memory in ‘Robot Repair Shop’

A model plane hanging in an airport art installation sparked an act of kindness and a heartwarming connection

By Matt Neistein

Published October 28, 2019

Read Time: 4 mins


In August 1963, 4-year-old Tim Baker took his first ride on an airplane.

His sister had just been born, and while his mother and the baby rested at the hospital, Tim’s dad, a mechanic for United Airlines, decided he and his son would take a quick day trip to New York International Airport (now known as John F. Kennedy International Airport) and back to Pittsburgh.

Terrified at takeoff, Tim quickly found the sky was a pretty cool place to be. And when they landed in New York, before they returned to Greater Pittsburgh Airport, his father bought him a model of a Caravelle – the French-made airliner on which he’d just taken his very first flight.

Tim played with that model airplane until it fell apart and was lost to the years.

Four years ago, artist Toby Atticus Fraley was looking for a new home for an installation he’d built in a Downtown Pittsburgh storefront called “Fraley’s Robot Repair.”

Styled like a repair shop, the space looks like the cover of a 1950s science fiction novel, with bulb-headed robots hanging amid disconnected parts, exotic tools on workbenches and detailed blueprints covering the walls. It’s a view of the future, but from a very distinct period of the past.

Pittsburgh International Airport offered Fraley a free space in Concourse A, where it quickly became one of the airport’s most popular attractions. He expanded the installation and added some specific touches to match the aviation environment.

One of those new elements was a model of a Caravelle that he hung from the ceiling.

Tim Baker began flying as a pilot for US Airways in 1985, moving to AirTran in 2005 when the company began to struggle. He’s been flying for Southwest since 2011, when that airline bought AirTran.

Southwest’s gates are in Concourse A, on either side of Fraley’s Robot Repair. Baker walks past the shop almost every week and on one occasion this summer, he spotted the Caravelle model, the same exact model his dad had given him.

A photo of the Caravelle model found in Fraley’s Robot Repair shop at PIT. (Courtesy Tim Baker)

“I couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe it. Immediately, I’m four years old, on that airplane with my dad,” he said. “It just took me back to a time. Having that thing in my house, I could just look at it and it’d remind me of that specific moment in time, in August of ’63 when my sister was born.”

Baker often stopped by to admire the Caravelle, until one day he noticed a phone number tucked away in a corner of the shop. He left a message for Fraley, asking him to name his price for the model.

After moving to the airport, Fraley set up a Google phone number for the shop with the full expectation that no one would ever call it.

After all, it’s not a real shop. As cool as it looks, it’s really just an art installation – no business is conducted there.

So he didn’t get Baker’s message until weeks after it was left. And once he heard it, it sounded incredibly familiar to him.

“My dad was in the Marine Corps and he worked on a plane called a C-47, and whenever I see C-47s, it strikes sort of a similar chord,” Fraley said. “It’s weird for an airplane to do that, but it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s my dad’s airplane.’”

Fraley immediately knew that the model was destined for a better home. He called Baker back and said he’d be happy to give the model to him for free.

In September, the two men met, and over a handshake, Fraley presented Baker with the Caravelle model.

Once again, Fraley refused payment, so Baker asked him about his favorite charity. Soon, the Make-A-Wish Foundation will receive a donation from Baker in Fraley’s name.

The model now sits in what Baker calls his “hooray for me” room in his Coraopolis home.

“Toby’s a great guy. He didn’t have to do that,” Baker said. “He made an old man happy; my wife and I are just thrilled. My sister saw it at the house and she was thrilled.”

Fraley posted a photo of the model on social media along with a short story about his interaction with Baker. The replies soon swelled with people applauding his generosity, which caught him off guard.

“I thought it was a good story and I thought it was more interesting, like, ‘Wow, Toby’s so insane he set up a phone number for this place,’” Fraley said. “That’s kind of why I was posting it. I feel uncomfortable when I get a lot of praise for something that’s so simple, just giving something away. I really appreciate that people got it, but I wasn’t going for that.”

Fraley’s happy with how the story ended, but he doesn’t really want to make a habit of giving away pieces of his art installation. In fact, he gets more people asking to add to the shop, not subtract from it, requests he’s obliged in several instances.

“I’d like to keep the shop as intact as possible,” he said. “I’ve gotten emails from people saying, ‘Hey, my grandfather was a big aviation fanatic, would you put a pair of pliers on the workbench?’ Things like that, so they’d have a little touchstone inside.”

Baker is delighted to have his touchstone at home. In a lifetime spent around planes, from the 727s his father worked on to the Cessna he first learned to fly and the high-tech jets he flies today, he never forgot that first plane ride with his dad.

“I’m just thrilled to have this thing,” he said. “A 60-year-old man being thrilled about having something, how often does that happen?”

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