ONE MAN’S DREAM, A NATION’S TREASURE
Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome: One Man’s Dream, a Nation’s Treasure
There are two kinds of people reading these words: Those who have resolved that someday they’re going detour to that aero paradise in the woods of downstate New York and those who have already been-there-done-that but are determined to do it again. It is a form of aviation potato chip: You can’t do it just once. Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, the nation’s first—and oldest— exhibition of prewar flying machines, exerts an indefinable attraction for any who loves aviation history. And fun! And can appreciate both being presented in a vaguely campy manner.
This year marks the 47th year that Cole Palen’s dream has been educating and entertaining people, while preserving priceless aviation history. But it was no accident. Cole Palen was part of a generation that venerated the aeronautical heroes of World War I. Just as today, the Mustang and Messerschmitt live in a hallowed fog of stories of derring-do, Jennys, Fokkers, and Sopwiths of the Great War had the same attraction to the kids of Cole’s generation—except that, in Palen’s case, he never outgrew his fascination with those early generations of aircraft and pilots.
Cole went almost directly from high school into the Battle of the Bulge and came out of WW II with the urge to get into aviation via the Roosevelt Aviation School at Roosevelt Field, Long Island, New York. In an important quirk of fate, it turned out that there was a substantial display of original WW I aircraft in a hangar on the field. In 1951, when Cole was 26 years old, it was announced that Roosevelt Field would be turned into a shopping center and the aircraft would be sold. The Smithsonian already had dibs on three of the planes, but Palen, still single and on fire with the desire to own the airplanes, took every penny he could muster and bought some amazing airplanes for a
fairly amazing price. At the time, they were considered curiosities, not aeronautical treasures, and few private individuals were interested in them. So after nine 200-mile round trips from his family farm, he filled all the outbuildings with complete but disassembled flying machines including a SPAD XIII, Avro 504K, Curtiss Jenny, Standard J-2, Aeromarine 39B, and Sopwith Snipe.
While he was pursuing those aircraft, Cole continually dreamed of establishing a form of entertainment center in which machines from the dawn of aviation would occupy center stage. In 1959, he found the perfect site—a farm next to Rhinebeck/Red Hook, New York—and the rest is
history. Cole died in 1993 at the age of 67 after a lifetime of putting his dream on display for the ages.
Today, the facility is operated by the Old Rhinebeck Foundation. The shows are still exciting and vaudeville-like with lots of melodrama: good guys chasing villains in the air and on the ground. The “soundtrack” underlying everything is the ratty noise of original rotary engines with a vaguely on-again, offagain rhythm, and the smell of castoroil smoke drifting across the audience. The smell, sound, and overall vibe seem somehow soft and friendly, not slick and Disney-like. It’s an enticing combination and is pure family fun.
The audience can freely wander through the sometimes rough-around-
the-edges period hangars and workshops, most of which feature a wonderfully livedin feeling that is real, not contrived authenticity. The museum, on the other hand, rises in quality above the other buildings. But the operation has never been about the money, and one doesn’t have to look hard to know that the labor force is there largely because they’re in love with what they’re doing. And that feeling shows. It’s not about the money—it’s about the history and the entertainment. Cole would be proud.
Bill King, one of Rhinebeck’s longtime pilots, coaxes their replica Hanroit into the air. It uses wing warping, not ailerons, for control.
Rhinebeck Aerodrome combines history with entertainment.
The Caudron’s rotary is a blur of smoke and motion.
Who knew the bad guys drove Model T Fords? Cole Palen, aviator/historian/entertainer/restorer, strikes a pose with his original 1912 Thomas Pusher.
The Fokker D.VII was Germany’s most advanced WW I fighter, and Rhinebeck’s replica does battle with Camels every weekend in the summer.
Top: Old enemies together—the Albatros is followed by ORA’s replica SPAD, which tours the country courtesy of its modern engine. Left and above: Authenticity, whether in dress or powerplants, is key at Rhinebeck when possible. Note their Spirit has no windshield.
The Pfalz flies dawn patrol before the activities begin.
The DH Tiger Moth fills in when another old funky biplane is needed.
The Triplane rests between missions.
Aviation in its early teens on parade.
Sightseeing flights are available throughout the week by reservation and, by luck, on the weekends. Rhinebeck’s New Standard D-25 carries four in the front seat. (Photo by Budd Davisson)
Above, below, and right: Melodrama is everywhere at Rhinebeck, whether it’s the Nieuport and an unwanted passenger or a Sopwith making a dramatic pass.