Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome

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When the high-wing, fabric-covered Bleiriot XI, an original aircraft dating back to 1911, had arced skyward, albeit briefly, from Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome’s rolling, green grass field straddled on either side by the red, orange, and yellow October-brushed trees reminiscent of the 1910 and 1920 barnstorming days, it had seemed as if this era of aviation had suddenly been resurrected.

Located on tiny, easily-missed Norton Road on the east side of the Hudson River not far from the historic village of Rhinebeck, New York, equidistant from the Taconic State Parkway and the New York State Thruway, Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is both the story of, and start of, one person’s dream. Unlike many people’s dreams, however, his actually came true, but not until years of perseverance, dedication, and hard work had transformed them into reality.

That person had been Cole Palen, born James H. Palen, Jr., and that dream had been the recreation of the antique era of aviation through a living history museum where vintage aircraft would routinely fly.

Having grown up next to the old Poughkeepsie Airport in New York, Palen had earned his Airframe and Powerplant license at the Roosevelt Aviation School on Long Island and had subsequently obtained his Private Pilot License, buying a Piper Cub. The seeds of his aerodrome had been planted when he had located six partially- and fully-assembled antique aircraft in 1951 at Roosevelt Field which had to be cleared for a new shopping mall. After bidding his life savings, he had acquired them. The location had thus become famous as both the starting point of Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight and Palen’s eventual Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome. Paris, the former’s destination, had been 3,500 miles away, while the Palen farm in Rhinebeck, the latter’s destination, had been only 100 miles away, yet had taken far longer to reach.

After storage in abandoned chicken coops, the six aircraft, comprised of a 1917 SPAD XII, a 1918 Standard J-1, a 1914 Avro 504K, a 1918 Curtiss Jenny, a 1918 Sopwith Snipe 7F1, and a 1918 Aeromarine 39B, had formed his initial fleet and the “aerodrome” had been comprised of a 1,000-foot-long, rocky, swamp-drained clearing called a “runway” and a single crude building serving as a “hangar” on a patch of farmland he had subsequently purchased. Additional aircraft acquisitions-and parts of them-had expanded the mostly biplane lineup, after considerable restoration and reconstruction.

Always motivated by his passion for antique aviation, he had continued to expand the crude aerodrome, but it had taken on new meaning when it had attracted public interest. An initial air show, performed before a crowd of 25 with a handful of World War I aircraft, had occurred in 1960 and had yielded to a scheduled one held on the last Sunday of each of the summer months as of 1967. Aerodrome improvements had resulted in the lengthening of the grass strip to 1,500 and ultimately 2,000 feet, and the aircraft had comprised the largest, privately owned collection in the northeast.

During the 1970s, the air show had been held every Saturday and Sunday, weather permitting, from May to October, and 40 authentic and replica aircraft with original engines had comprised the fleet. Five had been used in the filming of “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines.”

Three metal, quonset hut-like hangars, constructed between 1963 and 1964 and located at the top of a small hill above the main dirt-and-grass parking lot, house Pioneer, World War I, and Lindbergh era aircraft today, across from a new museum facility and a small gift shop. But the aerodrome itself, on the other side of Norton Road, is accessed by a wooden covered bridge which serves as more than just an entrance to a grass field; instead, it serves as a time portal to the barnstorming era of aviation, an historical dimension somehow arrested and preserved in time.

The hangers, as if ignorant of the calendar, proudly brave the winds, bearing such names as Albatros Werke, Royal Aircraft Factory Farnborough, A.V. Roe and Company, Ltd., and Fokker. But it is the multitude of mono-, bi-, and triplanes which most fiercely wrestles with one’s present-time conception.

The current air show program, which runs from mid-June to mid-October, features the “History of Flight” show on Saturdays, with pioneer aircraft such as the Bleriot XI, the Curtiss D pusher, and the Hanriot, while the “World War I” show on Sundays includes designs such as the Albatros, the Avro 504K, the Caudron G.III, the Curtiss JN-4D Jenny, the Fokker D.VII, the Fokker Dr.I, the Nieuport II, the Sopwith Camel, the SPAD VII, the Davis D1W, the de Havviland Tiger Moth, and the Great Lakes 2T-1R. Biplane rides in four-passenger New Standard D-25s are given before and after the shows, while viewers can admire the fleet either in hangars or on the grass aerodrome while having lunch on outdoor picnic tables at the Aerodrome Canteen.

Audience volunteers, sporting Victorian, Edwardian, and 1920s dress, provide fashion shows after changing in the aerodrome’s single, track-mounted, red caboose, often transported past spectators in vintage vehicles such as a 1909 Renault, a 1916 Studebaker, and a 1914 Model T Speedster. Period music completes the scene.

The air shows themselves, which feature only treetop-high sprints of the pioneer aircraft before immediate relandings on the grass, otherwise offer more dramatic maneuvers of the World War I and Lindbergh era designs, including aerobatics, dogfights, bomb raids, balloon bursts, parachutists, and “Delsey drives.”

Many air show “characters” have evolved over the years and now include “Old Rhinebeck famous” names such as the Black Baron, Trudy Truelove, Sir Percey Goodfellow, Officer O’Malley, the Keystone Cops, Madame Fifi, and the Flying Farmer.

Of the 70 aircraft in the Old Rhinebeck collection, only a small percentage is maintained in flying condition at any given time.

The Bleriot XI, for instance, powered by a single-propeller, 35-hp Anzani engine, was the first heavier-than-air aircraft to aerially cross the English Channel and the first to be mass-produced, and paradoxically became the world’s oldest still-flying design at the beginning of the 21st century. But it is hardly the only historically significant aircraft on the field.

The US-designed Curtiss D, for instance, first flying in 1911 with an 80-hp pusher-propeller Hall Scott engine, survived Lincoln Beachey’s famous Niagara Falls plunge and was instrumental in early ship landings. The US Army and Navy amassed initial experience with the type.

In France, the military was coincidentally practicing reconnaissance and artillery target spotting with its 80-hp Le Rhone engined-Cauldron G-III as early as 1913. Instrumental during WWI, the type enjoyed a 126-strong production run.

Across the Channel, the British were enjoying tremendous success with their A.V. Roe-manufactured 110-hp rotary Le Rhone-engined counterpart of 1914 to 1918 designated the Avro 504K. The two-place biplane, featuring an 82-mph speed and three-hour duration, conducted the first bombing raids and, as a trainer, became the most numerically produced WWI design.

The Nieuport II, another major French design, had originally been intended for the 1914 Gordon Bennett Cup Race, but equipped with a Lewis gun, the rapidly-climbing, highly maneuverable N-II ultimately became the primary equipment of the Lafayette Escadrille, the American volunteer group.

Perhaps the most famous European aircraft manufacturer of the period had been Anthony Fokker whose designs had been synonymous with the First World War. His DR-I, an abbreviation of the German Drei-Decker-Eins-or Triplane One-was manufactured in Schwerin, Germany, in 1917 and offered ultimate contemporaneous performance: a 115-mph speed, a 1,750-fpm climb rate, feisty maneuverability, and a two-hour airborne duration, perhaps explaining Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s overwhelming preference for the type. The replica on display was interestingly built from plans devised after a British capture of a DR-I.

Although the triplane had been Fokker’s most famous WWI design, it had quickly been joined by the 200-hp Mercedes-engined D-VII in 1918 which became the German counterpart of the competing countries’ fighters, particularly the Nieuports, the Sopwiths, and the Spads. The last of the Fokker designs to engage in combat had been the D.VIII. Suffering from structural wing failure as a result of poor workmanship, the 160-hp Gnome rotary engined-aircraft, originally designated the E. V., had been withdrawn from service in August of 1918 and modified. Returning to the skies on October 24, the sleek German fighter quickly earned the title Flying Razor during its brief, but impressionistic combat run until the Armistice had been signed the following month.

In the United States, attention had turned from destruction to peaceful application and the Curtiss JN-4H Jenny, although providing initial training for pilots who flew fighters in Europe, had introduced the nation to aerial flight across the continent during its barnstorming days and subsequently operated the first scheduled US air mail route from Newark to Washington in May of 1918. Alternatively powered by a 90-hp Curtiss OX-5 or 150-hp Hispano-Suiza water-cooled engine, the infamous Jenny saw a production run exceeding 10,000.

The slow-flying, five-aircraft formation suddenly appearing over the aerodrome in the silver-metallic sky during my own visit had strangely beckoned of a former era-seemingly a snapshot of history frozen in time-except that their silhouettes gradually moved off the edge of the frame – perhaps toward infinity and immortality…

Their paced movement seemed to imply that, despite all efforts to freeze history, that time was nevertheless in motion and impossible to arrest. But as I glanced at the Bleriot XI again – the oldest design on the field and the one which had sparked the air show’s beginning-I could not stop but think that it strangely resembled today’s increasingly popular-and therefore almost resurgent-ultralights. Perhaps we could not freeze history, but we certainly seemed to recycle through it, approaching it with new perspective, insight, knowledge, and technological skill and gleaning from it what we missed on the first pass-all in an attempt to elevate it to a higher “plane.”

Cole Palen prematurely died on December 7, 1993. It is from this “higher plane,” I am sure, that he looks down on the magnificent vintage aircraft aerodrome he created through his passion for and dream of a living aviation museum, one which had ultimately transcended his own life and had therefore been left to the world to be enjoyed by those who had followed him. As he had often advocated, “keep the dream alive,” a goal he had unarguably achieved on many levels.

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