It had somehow appeared tattered and weathered—and lifeless. The closed metal gates at the entrance to the dirt-and-grass parking lot impeded vehicle entrance. The chain extended across the covered, wooden footbridge, gateway to the grass airfield and time portal to the barnstorming era of aviation, sported a simple sign: “Sorry. We’re Closed.” Having made numerous trips here over the years, I remember it when it had taken on life, its arteries pumped by the sound of rotary engines; the smell of castor oil; the aromas of hamburgers cooking on the canteen’s grill; the characters, such as the Black Baron and Trudy Truelove; the mock dogfights of the biplanes; and the roar of the audience, for whom it had all been orchestrated. Now, there had been only silence.
The small pond, like a sheet of glass, reflected the name of this magical place painted on the rear, gray metal-covered wall of the Curtiss hangar: “Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome.”
It is early morning, on June 6, 2009, and the sun, triumphantly piercing the gray strata, thresholds a warm, beautiful day. Paradoxically, that day thresholds a new season.
Like a lifeless body, awakening from a long winter and a soggy spring, the aerodrome needed an infusion of soul to resurrect it. And that infusion slowly began to occur: one by one, the staff members, volunteers, and pilots arrived. This had been the way that the comatose airfield had been brought back to life every year, except that the June 6 date had marked its half-century milestone.
The yellow-and-white, striped tent, assembled next to the snack stand, had provided the meeting point of the team, cohesively bonded by the mandatory, annual safety briefing given by Tom Daley, Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome board member, retired police helicopter pilot, and professor at Dowling College on Long Island. Assembled under the canopy had been two distinct groups: the young, aspiring members who had been about to embark on their aviation careers, and the mature members who had mostly traveled that career path, united by the torch passed from the latter to the former and the interest in and enthusiasm for early aviation, which had produced the collective spirit. That spirit, more than the aircraft’s engines, had been the propelling force behind it all.
Part of that cohesion had emanated from the aerodrome’s mission statement, which had been reviewed as “to educate the public on early aviation’s spirit, sights, sounds, smells, period dress, and evolution. We do this,” it had continued to purport, “through interpretation, display, and operation of aircraft and vehicles built or designed from the beginning of powered flight through pre-World War II. Our core values are safety and customer satisfaction.”
Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome’s collective spirit had been comprised of numerous, individual spirits.
Joe O’Connor, for example, an American Airlines pilot since 1986 and currently rated on the Airbus A-300, had just entered his second year at the aerodrome and had been involved with ground operations—namely, aircraft repositioning, cleaning, fueling, and field safety. Although scheduling conflicts had precluded him from flying any of the aircraft in the collection, he had been contemplating the transition to flight operations and had hoped to be checked out on its pioneer designs, such as the Bleriot XI, the Curtiss D Pusher, and the Hanriot. “Where else in the world can you fly aircraft like these!” he had enthusiastically exclaimed.
Hugh Schoelzel, Old Rhinebeck Airshows president, had an extensive aviation career, having been in the Air Force and having flown all of the Boeing pure-jets designs, from the 707 to the 767, during his 37-year tenure at TWA and American. He currently flies the Piper J5.
Herb Gregory, a former Navy pilot and another retired American Airlines captain who had flown the 727, the 757, the 767, and the MD-11, had been found turning a wrench on an OX-5 engine in one of the hangars. Now in his third year at Old Rhinebeck, he had set his sights on flying its pioneer aircraft, but had been unable to do so because of the medical certificate which had lapsed since his 1999 airline industry retirement.
Indeed, Old Rhinebeck had represented aviation’s origins and it had been the location to which airline industry employees had seemed to return after their careers in “modern” aviation, resulting in a full cycle.
Old Rhinebeck had been staffed by a full-time secretary and its Chief Pilot and Mechanic, Bill Gordon, throughout the winter, during which time he, along with a skeleton staff of two or three, had succeeded in providing much-need restoration of the Fokker D.VII, the Sopwith Camel, and the Sopwith Dolphin.
The rolling grass field, newly mowed and appearing velvet-green, gleamed under the noon-approaching sun, the aerodrome’s north-south and only “runway,” seemingly waiting for use. It would not be long now.
Aircraft, orchestratedly tugged, lifted, and pushed by the ground crew volunteers, emerged from the aerodrome’s many hangars, locations of their winter hibernations and, alas, the area immediately beyond the frail fence had provided the purpose for which it had been intended: an aircraft-cradling flight line. The New Standard D-25 had been the first to be “awakened” for the summer.
The collective sounds of activity and voices broke the silence experienced during my earlier arrival, as the New Standard had been washed and prepared. It would certainly not be long now.
Shortly after, the first of the season’s patrons, in the form of a child-holding family, filtered through the aerodrome’s time portal, and the antique cars, periodically belching smoke, rendezvoused with them and drove them down the grass field. For the children, it had been the ride of their lifetimes. I would hazard a guess that their parents had shared some of those emotions.
But the greatest sign of life, and one which could not be heard at any other airport in the world, had been the first sputter of the D-25’s 220-hp Continental engine, which filled its cylinders with air and took its first breath in months, as if it had been a new-born.
The definitive sight-and-sound verification of Old Rhinebeck’s emergence from winter had occurred when the five-seat New Standard, still only occupied by its pilot, taxied to the north end of the field and unleashed a throaty roar into the air as a result of its full throttle advancement, disengaging itself from the ground and climbing skyward. In order to retain currency, pilots had to make three take offs and landings to a full stop every 90 days.
I looked round, torched by the high-noon sun. The Bleriot XI, the Avro 504K, and the Great Lakes had been removed from their own winter hibernations, now sharing the sun with me. The ground crew had dedicatedly engaged in its aircraft servicing and fueling pursuits. A considerable number of people had been attracted to the admission-free, pre-season event and now littered the field, admiring the aircraft and peering into the hangars. Another family had been transported by an antique car. The gift shop’s door, for the first time in months, had been ajar. The D-25 side-slipped on to the grass, carrying passengers.
Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome had once again been alive, infused by the soul which gives life to any “body” and one which had reached its 50th birthday. Cole Palen, indeed, would have been proud of what he had “fathered.”
One week from now, the 2009 season will have begun…