Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome

Saturday and Sunday, September 2-3, 2006

Those Magnificent Men, in their Flying Machines,
They go uppity, up, up,
They go downity, down down……

The theme song to the movie of the same name, it covers an airplane race across the English Channel by those fearless aviators of the early days. It’s a fun movie, with enough action, humor and ‘love interest’ to satisfy almost everyone. A hard movie to find today on DVD or VHS, it was one of my favorite films (along with A Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World) as a child.

Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, in Rhinebeck, NY across the Hudson River from Kingston is where you can be transported back to these those times. The Aerodrome is a collection of original and recreated WWI era aircraft and vehicles. Amazingly enough, it’s not just a museum, but each weekend in the summer and early fall it hosts air shows, with re-creation of famous flights on Saturdays, and dogfights on Sunday. The buildings and costumes at the Aerodrome are in period, and it’s a grass airstrip, so attending an air show is much like walking onto an air base in Britain during WWI.

It’s hard to do justice to Rhinebeck – it’s one of those places you really just have to see to believe. I spent a day at Rhinebeck as a 4 year old with my parents, not too long after the Aerodrome opened on a commercial basis. It made enough of an impression even back then that a visit to Rhinebeck for me was the only ‘absolutely, positively have to go’ venue on this entire trip. I really wanted Vance to experience the air show, because as neat as the museum is (several buildings full of planes and cars), the air show is where it really comes all together.

Rhinebeck came about as a result of an obsession with old planes by Cole Palen. In the late 50’s, he began restoration of some WWI era biplanes he purchased at auction on a lark. Once he got a few of the planes flying (requiring not just the restoration of the airframes, but also the engines), he began flying the planes for his own enjoyment out of a pasture. Attracting curious onlookers, what eventually grew into the Aerodrome was born. In the early 60’s the first ‘official’ air shows began, and they’ve continued to this day. Palen passed away in the mid-nineties, and although the collection is a bit smaller than before (his will offered the Smithsonian and the Air Force Museum their choice of any planes they wanted), Rhinebeck today is run by a collection of volunteers and a non-profit. The collection is still extensive, and renovations continue today. Rhinebeck owns the oldest still flying airplane in the world, a 1909 Bleriot XI.

Saturday turned out to be a miserable day – we drove on over to the airfield hoping against hope that they could fly, but it was not to be. We satisfied ourselves by visiting the museum, and walking around the airfield. I pointed out a WWI era tank to Vance that I remembered playing in, rather amazed it was still there. We went back out again on Sunday, still not sure if they could get the show in, but luck was with us.... the sun broke thru the clouds about the time we got there, and the wind settled down.

The air show is a lot of fun, and there simply isn’t anything like it anywhere . It’s a combination of an old time fashion show, campy humor, barnstorming and history. One of the highlights was ‘the Flying Farmer’, an 80 year old stunt pilot who does a comedy routine full of mishaps in a Piper Cub that simply is amazing when you can stop laughing long enough to appreciate what he’s doing (yes, you can loop a Piper Cub!) Other highlights include a contest by multiple biplanes ‘cutting’ streaming rolls of toilet paper they throw out of the cockpits, balloon popping by the planes, and of course, a dogfight between a French Spad and the dreaded Fokker Triplane of Red Baron fame. All that was missing is Snoopy on his doghouse to come flying over the field.

One very interesting demonstration was the cranking of an early rotary engine. In order to allow early engines to gain higher compression rations (hence more power), several early engine designs actually rotated the entire engine around a fixed crankshaft. It’s wild to watch, and was a reasonably effective way to cool the engines. This method had one major failing – it required Castor Oil for lubrication, and the pilots were coated with the stuff from what the engines threw off. Apparently, after breathing in enough Castor Oil, it had much the same effect on WWI pilots that ingesting the stuff has… an emergency landing was needed and a quick search for the nearest outhouse!

To top off everything, at the end of the day Vance and I took a flight in an American Standard Biplane. Although biplane rides are common at municipal airports around the country, this was the first one I’ve seen that operated like the old barnstormers, flying off of a grass strip. It’s hard to appreciate the roar and the power thrown off by the propellers in this day of jet engines and sealed cockpits. The two of us sat in front, with the pilot behind. A quick burst of power, and we were bumping down the pasture. The runway actually has a significant dip at the start of it, so when the pilot first starts his roll on takeoff, you are going uphill. Once it levels out, you really gain speed (and it gets really bumpy – those things are built solid for a good reason!)

Although a solemn occasion, as we scattered some of my dad’s ashes during the flight, I have rarely enjoyed anything so much. As soon as we climbed into the air, Vance turned to me and yelled (that was the only way you could hear anything over the prop wash) WOW! The fifteen min ride seemed over in seconds, and was simply exhilarating – we were both as high as a kite when we climbed out of the cockpit.

An interesting side note - when landing, the pilots most often come in turned partially sideways, straightening up only at the last second (literally!) prior to landing. Because the pilot sits in back, it's difficult for him to see what's below in front of the plane. Turning the plane sideways allows them to get a feel for where exactly the ground is, but when they land, they are landing blind. It's a bit unnerving coming in, and looks strange to watch a plane land that way.

I’m not sure why Rhinebeck isn’t better known, as it’s such a unique experience. If you ever are up in this area, you absolutely, positively have to come here……

Vance: Rhinebeck Aerodrome had so many planes. Including they had the Red Barron, a German plane that shot down 80 planes! They had a plane show and had planes cut toilet paper. One time they used the flying bike but the fuse blew so it couldn’t make it up the ramp. There was a British tank that my dad went in when he was little. One plane started by spinning the propeller to get it going. Also they had an airplane engine that was hand cranked.

There was a crazy farmer who went in a plane on his own and did some funky moves. Finally Dad and I went on a biplane ride and flew around in the sky!


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