Vintage aircraft fly over Hudson Valley
By Michael Turton
The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome has all the characteristics that make for a great day trip. It’s far enough away, slightly more than 50 miles north of Philipstown, to give it that “new place feel” — but close enough that you won’t spend long getting there. It’s only about an hour’s drive straight north on the Taconic Parkway.
This is not your average museum. It offers colorful special events, and exciting and unforgettable airplane rides. And for those interested in history, aviation, technology and all manner of things that fly, it is a one-of-a-kind place. After spending a few hours at the aerodrome, one can spend time exploring the villages of Red Hook and Rhinebeck right next door, and Kingston lies just west across the Hudson River. There are plenty of restaurants, pubs, cafes and other area attractions to help you round out a full day with minimal travel.
The air shows
Many museums brag that “history comes alive” on their premises, but the Old Rhinebeck Areodrome really walks the talk. Or rather, it flies the talk. Every Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., from mid-June to mid-October, the skies there come alive with the thrilling sights and sounds of vintage aircraft at the aerodrome’s renowned air shows. The Saturday shows portray the history of flight and feature aircraft from 1900 to 1939. You’ll see the likes of the 1909 Bleriot, 1910 Curtiss Pusher, 1918 SPAD VII and 1931 Curtiss Wright Junior — not sitting in the museum but performing aerial maneuvers overhead.Planes execute ribbon cuts, balloon bursts and aerobatics.
On Sundays the air show concentrates on World War I aircraft. Famous aircraft such as the 1918 British Sopwith Camel, the 1917 German Fokker Triplane, and the 1916 Curtiss “Jenny” — America’s most famous World War I airplane — take to the sky. Dogfights take place overhead along with mock bombing raids complete with pyrotechnics. The air show really is a show, performed as a drama, with an interesting cast of characters and vintage vehicles on the ground in addition to the truly fascinating aircraft above.
The museum is actually four buildings filled with an array of aircraft from 1900 to 1940. There are also cars, motorcycles and memorabilia, but the airplanes are the stars of the show. In the Pioneer Era building, you can get up close to an exact replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer “Kittyhawk” of Orville and Wilbur fame. The 1909 Demoiselle may have been the world’s first light plane. It weighed in at just 315 pounds, was powered by a 30-horsepower engine, and could reach speeds of almost 60 miles per hour!
The World War I building is especially fascinating. Check out the 1917 German Albatros DV — the same model of aircraft in which Manfred von Richthofen, “The Red Baron,” scored 60 of his 80 victories. Among the other World War I planes on display are the German Fokker Triplane and a 1911 Nieuport 2N, which in 1911 set the world speed record of 74 mph. The Lindbergh Era building shows off planes from 1920-1940, the period known as “The Golden Age of Aviation.”
Key aircraft from the entire 1900-1940 period are on display in the History of Flight building. One of the highlights is a 1911 Bleriot, named for Louis Bleriot, the renowned French inventor, aviator and aircraft builder, and the first to fly across the English Channel. Two ongoing projects that will capture the imagination of visitors are detailed reproductions of Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis” and a British Sopwith Dolphin World War I fighter.
The ride of a lifetime
Visitors don’t just passively view the history of aviation at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome — they can actually experience it by taking a flight in a 1928 New Standard, open cockpit biplane. It’s a ride you won’t soon forget. Up to four passengers, sporting helmets and goggles, sit in front of the pilot. Tighten your seat belt. The engine roars. The biplane taxis down the grass strip.
At the end of the runway the pilot throttles up, turns the plane into the breeze and releases the brakes. “Exhilarating” does not adequately describe the feeling as the aircraft races down the runway, picks up speed and is very quickly airborne. The senses go into overdrive. It’s loud. It’s windy. The view of the wooded landscape below is breathtaking. The Hudson River comes into view. The imagination stirs with thoughts of Eddie Rickenbacker, Billy Bishop and barnstorming. And yes, Snoopy and the Red Baron are likely to come to mind. The flight is smooth and joyous. The New Standard returns to earth and you want to do it all over again.
The aerodrome is established … and carries on
The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome was established by James “Cole” Palen who had a lifelong interest in aviation and history. In 1951 he purchased six aircraft from the Roosevelt Field Air Museum on Long Island, which was making way for the Roosevelt Field Shopping Center. In 1959 he acquired the land that is now the aerodrome. Early development was paid for with money he earned building aircraft used in the 1958 Warner Brothers’ film, Lafayette Escadrille, starring Tab Hunter and featuring a very young Clint Eastwood.
Palen died in 1993. His wife Rita continued Palen’s legacy until she passed away in 2002. Cole Palen’s Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome operates as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Memberships are available and two gift shops offer an excellent variety of aviation-related items, the sale of which helps support the facility. For more information visit oldrhinebeck.org.