Heading north from New York City one travels through the stunning Hudson Valley. About an hour and a half from the city you reach the upper portion of the valley and the town of Rhinebeck. It is a tranquil, lovely town with a wonderful assortment of shops and eateries for all palates and prices and one of the real highlights of this area is the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome.
Cole Palen, a pilot and aircraft preservationist, was so taken by the famous Shuttleworth Collection of historic airplanes in England that in 1966 he decided that the New York area should have something to brag about in terms of keeping aging aircraft alive. Like those who crave and collect fine wines, cars and watches, Cole collected planes and created the Aerodrome. He wanted a living museum that the public could visit and enjoy, as well as a home for pilots who collected these wonderful old machines. It was to become a place to store and enjoy these flying pieces of history. He built a facility that today houses some of the finest examples of antique aircraft in the world. One of the Aerodrome’s jewels is the 1909 Bleriot XI, with US civil registration N60094. It is believed to be the oldest flying aircraft in the United States and the second oldest in the world. Cole died in December of 1993, but his dream lives on. Those who come from far and wide can only stand in awe of the collection that he inspired.
Cole grew up outside of Poughkeepsie in upstate New York, and as a child became enamored with airplanes and the idea of flying. He built model airplanes until his dream took hold. He learned to fly at the old Roosevelt Aviation School at Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York. Cole had gone to school to train as a mechanic. Even then his dream was to have his own collection and his own airfield. That became a reality in 1959 when he bought a farm near Rhinebeck. What he created is a wonderful place for pilots of old and historic aircraft to spend their free time flying and teaching. These pilots give the general public an opportunity to experience something unique in their lives. That brings us to the present. (If you want to learn more about Cole and his dream go to: www. ColePalen.com)
Sitting on what was once Cole’s farmland is a fantastic rural airfield with small hangars that house the prized planes, antique cars and motorcycles that are on exhibit every weekend during the warmer weather. Private individuals have brought their planes to the airfield to complement the original collection. The collection is really astounding when one thinks of the history behind these planes. As an example, I was able to see up close such collectibles as: a 1943 Tiger Moth and a 1936 Aeronca C-3. There is even a 1929 New Standard bi-plane, manufactured in Teterboro, New Jersey, that provides rides to all who wish to pay for the privilege. Also among the original planes are: a 1918 JN-4 (known as a “Jenny”), a 1931 Curtis Jr. and the 1929 New Standard mentioned above. There is a 1917 replica of a Spad 7 and a 1942 Consolidated Fleet (in which I had the opportunity to fly). There is also a Fokker tri-plane reproduction powered by a 110hp Le Rhone 9J rotary engine and an Albatros D. V reproduction. Included in the exhibit are a few plane engines. One of the engines is a V-12 Hispano Suiza that once powered many a craft both on land and in the air.
Along the grounds near the airstrip one can walk into several old hangars and look and touch a wide assortment of aircraft that are under restoration or repair or in storage. This is a hands-on place. The planes are constantly being worked on to maintain their ability to fly. The organization encourages you to be part of their living legend. You can attend a short lecture about the era or the machines, or ask questions of the mechanics and pilots. It is an experience to be there and to form memories to take with you when you leave.
The chief mechanic, a fellow named Ken Kassens, who resembles a pilot from this era, has almost finished building a replica of the Spirit of St. Louis. Even the cockpit is exactly as it was in the photographs shown. He hopes to get the plane up in the air within the next few months. He is the chief mechanic responsible for the maintenance of all the planes on the grounds. He claims his job is one of the best anyone could ever have, and his pride in his work clearly shows. It is that same type of spirit and love for historic planes and flying that makes this place so special for the public. Each and every weekend during the summer months the Aerodrome puts on an air show that includes a ground show. The ground show is a comedy farce using a selection of planes, old cars, and amateur actors.
Included in the show are several vintage automobiles. The facility owns and operates these period pieces. These cars are well used but very well maintained. No “concours” types here. There are such cars as: a 1920 Buick, a 1909 Renault Tourer, a 1922 American La France Fire Engine, a 1911 Baker Electric, a 1917 Columbia Ambulance, a 1919 Ford Model T Speedster plus other vintage cars and motorcycles. Some of these models participate in the ground and air shows, others are tucked away in the museum or storage hangars next to the museum. The folks like to rotate the use of the cars and bikes (both motorized and pedal) so that the crowds get to view a wide variety of ground transportation to match the uniqueness of the airplanes. These vehicles are wonderful. They exemplify the everyday abilities these machines were capable of in their day. So, as one looks out on the all grass runway and watches the air show, the ground show becomes an integral part of the production.
When I was there on a sunny hot and humid Sunday in July, there were close to 650 spectators who paid admission to see this spectacular demonstration of old planes and old cars. The amateur actors that make up the cast are well prepared. They act out a wild skit where the Baron tries to steal a bride-to-be and—without giving anything away here—the story is whimsical and a lot of fun, especially for the kids. You sit on rustic wood planks several inches off the ground that give you the feeling of how it was in yesteryear. There are several refreshment stands selling everything from ice cream to popcorn and hot foods like hamburgers and hot dogs with all the trimmings. No one goes hungry here. And the view is perfect for everyone: no matter what section of the seating area you pick the field activities happen right in front of you. The crowd roars with laughter, and cheers and boos while the good guys try to catch the Baron and his bad boys, as this ground drama unfolds while planes are flying overhead.
One portion of the air show has two planes flying near each other and one of them drops a roll of toilet paper. It is the challenge for the other pilot to see how many times he can slice the paper with his wings before the roll falls too close to the ground. One amazing fact about all of the air show demonstrations is that there was no radio communication between the pilots. Everything was planned ahead of time and orchestrated beautifully in the air.
Other portions of the show demonstrated how these old planes functioned. One plane in particular does not fly. The crew says that it is too fragile and too old. So, while the pilot revs the engine, several men take hold of the wings and the rudder system to show how this unique aircraft once flew. Another example is watching a couple of the really old planes travel down the runway just clearing the ground, maybe ten feet or so, before they land again. The idea here is to show the fans how the aviators of old braved their souls to try desperately to fly like the birds. Some soared a hundred feet off the ground, some only mustered a few feet, but most of them cleared the ground showing that they could lift enough to say they flew.
After the public show was over, I got to go up in the air!
I was instructed on the use of hand signals (remember—no radios) as I sat in the rear of the 1942 Fleet on several layers of thick vinyl padding to lift me high enough to take photos from the plane. In the Fleet there are two seats, one behind the other, and the pilot can sit either in the front one or in the back one. Jose, my pilot, suggested that I sit in the back so that I would be able to better manipulate my camera and its 70-200mm lens to capture the air to air photos for this story. There were two sets of controls in the plane and Jose worked the pedals and the joy stick from his front seat, which meant I had to move about very carefully so as not to step on anything. So moving around to take pictures required some finesse on my part as well. I am happy to report that I managed very successfully and, as you can see, the photos came out wonderfully. I can honestly say that takeoffs and landings were fun. Landing was a slight bit tricky because Jose explained to me that you need some wind to help you steer these planes as you land. The plane floated to one side then to the other like a car out of alignment as we descended. Then a soft thump of sorts and we were on the ground. The in-air portion was as smooth as any small aircraft I have ever flown in. I will admit that a pair of ear plugs and the leather helmet provided me some dulling of the loud engine drone. It was an amazing experience. My publisher tried to encourage me to try wing walking, but thankfully I passed this time around.
This exciting experience was made possible with the help of a few special individuals. First and foremost was Michael Maniatis, the Treasurer of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome. Michael made it all happen for me, from the initial phone call to my actual going up in the 1942 Fleet. Michael owns and flies the 1943 Tiger Moth and the 1936 Aeronca C-3. I want to thank Jose Millares who is the President of the Aerodrome’s Board of Trustees and Chief Pilot, for all his help. Jose was my pilot when I went up in the Fleet and took air to air photos of several of the planes. He and Michael were instrumental in helping me get names and faces and planes in order for this article. Chris Bulko, the Air Show Director coordinated everything for everyone throughout the day. Without his incredible overseeing of the ground and air activities this would not be as successful an arena as it is. Clay Hammond was another pilot who helped us out immensely when it was time for me to go up in the planes. These people are just a few of the many who make up this unique group of individuals whose hearts and souls are dedicated to making this facility a place that reveres history while providing entertainment for children and adults of all ages. Their dedication to our aviation history is unparalleled and this small corner of the world needs your attention. If you have any desire or interest in seeing historic planes fly and old cars being used just like they were in their day, then a trip to the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is a must. The cost of admission is pennies compared to the joy you will receive and the smile on your face when you leave. Watching these great inventions take off and land on a rather short grassy air strip (no pavement) is a sight alone. But to witness the finesse of the pilots in planes that are 60, 70 and even 100 years old is the thrill of the day. It is a living museum in the purest sense.
Article and Photography by Denis L. Tanney, Automotive Editor