The black-fuselaged, red-winged 1929 Warren Disbrow New Standard D-25, registered N19157, appeared over the trees as it was elevator-trimmed on to its final approach toward the rolling grass field of Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, momentarily disappearing as it flared behind the hill and ultimately reappearing at the top of it with its conventional undercarriage now firmly ground-based. This was how America had been introduced to flying during the 1920s barnstorming days; it would certainly be the way I would be introduced to it–in an open-cockpit biplane. Paradoxically, the aircraft would do more than aerially transport me: it would “transport” me back in time.
Designed by Charles Healy Day as a successor to his earlier GD-24 series airframe, the D-25 had been built by three different aircraft manufacturers, each struggling to combat poor economic conditions, before finally being produced by the New Standard Airplane Company of Patterson, New Jersey, in 1929. Originally powered by the 220-hp Wright Whirlwind J-5 piston engine—which had also powered Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis—aircraft N19157 featured the equally-horsepowered, eight-cylinder, dual-bladed, uncowled Continental radial engine. The 45-foot upper wing sported trailing edge ailerons which, angled toward the tips, progressively increased in area. The open, single-pilot cockpit, positioned behind the two-bench, four- to five-passenger cabin box, was equipped with a stick, rudder pedals, and a sparse instrument panel: an airspeed indicator (calibrated in mph), an altimeter, a compass, an oil pressure gauge, an oil temperature gauge, a turn-and-bank indicator, and an engine starter. The current steerable rubber tailwheel replaced the design’s original tailskid.
The Rhinebeck aircraft, with a 2,010-pound empty weight, featured a 1,400-pound payload capability comprised of the single pilot, four passengers, and 64 gallons of fuel.
The 55 D-25s produced were intended for the same purpose as N19157 would serve today—the exchange of revenue for rides—which, upon reflection, was the very definition of the word “barnstorming.”
A single wooden step, the era’s equivalent to a “jet bridge,” led me on to the wing root and over the side into the enclosed–(I slipped on this adjective)–open cabin into the present-day equivalent of seat 2A, a nonsmoking, smoking, element-exposed window seat whose view encompassed as much as the passenger ventured to take in. The spartan “cabin” consisted only of the two previously mentioned bench seats and the wooden, chest-high half-sides and floor. I guess the sheer novelty of conquering lift for any amount of time far outweighed the importance of comfort. That would eventually take its place in the line of priorities.
The two wheels rode the hill’s inclines remarkably well. Assuming an almost deafening sputter, the uncowled, 220-hp Continental engine propelled the D-25 into its wind-generating acceleration roll over the sloping ground. In an almost simultaneous deflection, the aircraft gently lifted its tail wheel off the ground and surrendered its dual, fabric-covered wings to the sky. Bitten by the stinging, slipstream-produced October wind whose force almost inhibited respiration, and periodically needled by the engine-spit castor oil, I immediately ascertained what those enclosed-cabined aircraft were protecting me from. As the D-25 crossed over the runway perpendicular to its take off direction, a yellow-winged Waco biplane gently flexed skyward, completing the illusionary time capsule. Was a void from the biplane era really trapped in the present day and did anyone know about it? I had wondered.
The ground, camouflaged by a dense pattern of orange, yellow, and red autumn-transformed trees, was otherwise devoid of contemporary civilization. Accelerating between 70 and 80 mph, as registered by the port wing wire brace strut-installed, onrushing wind actuated-airspeed indicator, the biplane surmounted the silver surface of the Hudson River.
An old codger, sharing the same aft bench and seatbelt as I and demonstrating great familiarity with his goggles and the aircraft, sat across from me in “2B.” The stories you could probably relate about this era, I thought. I garnered a new-found understanding and respect for the aviation pioneers who had braved the deafening engine emissions and bitter winds in the black night skies with nary an instrument or navigation aid to guide them as they delivered the US mail. Everyone should step into the other person’s shoes before he attempts a judgment.
Rudder-induced into a left bank toward the aerodrome, the D-25, now side-slipped into an almost vertical, but controlled descent toward the white “X” marking its threshold, flared and settled on to the hill at a power-reduced 50-mph, its two main wheels absorbing the alight and brief deceleration. Taxiing down two-thirds of the grass strip, the still-sputtering, quad-passenger biplane swung round to the right with the aid of its tail wheel and ceased movement at the “Biplane Rides” booth, where another group of four eagerly awaited their flight.
Removing goggles and climbing out over the wing of the propeller-spinning aircraft, I stepped back on to the ground…and into 1995.