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ONE MAN’S DREAM, A NA­TION’S TREA­SURE

Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Budd Davis­son

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.

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