The Golden Anniversary of Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome
As the sun pinnacled at its noon trajectory on Saturday, July 11, 2009, so, too, did Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome. The staff, having already arrived at 0900, had prepared this pocket of history for its pioneer aircraft air show, and the parking lot, across Norton Road, had deposited an increasingly larger crowd through the covered, wooden footbridge, providing pulse to the heart which one man had first infused with air in his life-long project to recreate this era of aviation.
A line of aircraft, mostly frail biplanes sporting bracing wires and exposed, uncowled engines, had been nosed into the boundary fence on the grass airfield.
Today, however, had seemed a little different from the countless others which had begun this way, because it could trace its origin to the first one, 50 years ago. Today had marked the half-century anniversary of the aerodrome.
Like so many successful ventures, it had been the result of several uniquely combinable elements whose successful result could neither have been predicted nor fathomed and whose whole had been of incomparable completeness. In this case, those elements had included a 25-year-old man named Cole Palen, six World War I aircraft, a farm field in the Hudson Valley midway between New York and Albany, and inspiration, all of which had resulted in one man’s life, the legacy he had left, and the lessons he had taught with it. Along with this story, it is worthy of a “read.”
Born James H. Palen, Jr., on December 29, 1925, in Pennsylvania, he had been introduced to the Hudson Valley region which would someday cradle his aerodrome when his parents had moved to a poultry farm in Red Oaks Mills, New York, located next to the Old Poughkeepsie Airport. Interest precedes, and yields to, inspiration. The airport, generating the former, had provided his first fight in a Standard J-1 when he had been ten years old.
After completing two years in the US Army as an Infantryman, G.I. bill-financed mechanic training at the Roosevelt Aviation School on Roosevelt Field, Long Island, had enabled him to earn his Airframe and Powerplant (A & P) license and, after a ten-hour flight training program in a Piper Cub, a pilot’s license as well. Although both would later be instrumental in his life accomplishment, one other element at the Roosevelt Aviation School would prove integral to the ultimate result.
Its Hangar 68 had housed nine dirty, disassembled World War I aircraft formerly displayed in the Roosevelt Field Museum, but had to be discarded to make room for the pending construction of the Roosevelt Field Shopping Mall in 1951. To most people, they had been trash. To “Cole” Palen, they had represented treasure-and his future.
Although the Smithsonian Institution had purchased three of them, he had bid his paltry life savings for the other six, which had included a Sopwith Snipe, a SPAD XIII, a Curtiss Canuck, an Avro 504K, an Aeromarine 39B, and a Standard J-1. He ultimately won the bid, which may well have been facilitated by the lack of any other, but the greater obstacle lay in the stipulation that he had to remove them and transport them to his father’s Hudson Valley farm within a 30-day period.
Nine 200-mile round-trips from Long Island with his equally feeble vehicle had ultimately enabled him to store these skeletal wing and fuselage remains in his father’s barn, but they had formed the foundation of his eventual, early-era fleet and life’s dream.
But he worked from the bottom up, with the most fundamental, and the most fundamental number had been one. The SPAD XIII, the first of the six to be painstakingly restored, had been that one and had first been flown at Stormville Airport. Because of its considerably robust construction and reliable, Hispano-Suiza engine, it had been the prime candidate for distant-air show performance, enabling him to amass critical revenue, which had parlayed into future fleet acquisitions and restorations, and critical publicity.
The Curtiss JN-4C Canuck, the first to have made the slow, precarious journey from Long Island, had paradoxically never flown at the aerodrome, but had been quickly sold to a private owner in Spokane, Washington, where it equally paradoxically remains the only one of the original six to still fly.
The Sopwith Snipe, for which Palen had made a separate bid because he had wanted it more than the other five combined, joined the Standard J-1, which had appeared in the movie “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World” in 1962, before having been traded for a Nieuport 28 and $200 in cash.
The original Avro 504K had an equally short aerial career, while the Aeromarine 39B had never even made it into the sky: virtually destroyed by fire during road transport as a result of an inadvertently-tossed cigarette from a passing car, it later succumbed to a second fire when its remains, stored in the Palen farmhouse and only preliminarily restored, had been reduced to ashes when the house itself had been consumed by flames.
The journey between one’s dreams and the successful realization of them, as evidenced by these roadblocks, is hardly a smooth one.
Palen’s love, interest, and inspiration had yielded to his first income-producing venture when the SPAD XIII and a later-acquired Bleriot had been hired for the filming of a movie in Hollywood, and this revenue had enabled him to buy a farm near Rhinebeck in November of 1958. The field, cleared to create a 1,000-foot dirt “runway” bordered by tall trees, had witnessed its first take off in the form of a high-wing Aeronca C-3 and had become the location of his ultimate vintage aircraft collection. That location had been today’s Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome.
This collection had hardly been a static one, however. Indeed, Palen had continually sold, purchased, swapped, and restored, until the Snipe and the SPAD had been the only two of the original six remaining.
Inspiration, integral to Palen’s life and the successful pursuit of his goals, had been only one element of it. Like the Wright Brothers, he had had the optimum combination of characteristics which had enabled him to complete his achievements: he had married late in life and, as mostly a loner, had abundant time to devote sun-up to sun-down focus on the necessary maintenance, procurement, and restorative steps needed to create his vintage fleet. But inspiration has its boundaries within the self, and only contagious enthusiasm had enabled him to attract the many like-minded who, pulled into his quest, had enabled him to transform torn fabric into aircraft and dirt into runways. The planet had provided all the resources. Palen, interfacing them, had apparently known how to harness them.
Like the nucleus of an early, resurrected aviation atom, his crude, but evolving aerodrome had attracted an increasing crowd which, adopting standard restaurant practice, dropped tips into a hat in order to watch its biplane flight demonstrations.
The first scheduled air shows, held on the last Sunday of the month during the summer season, had entailed neither characters nor plots, but instead singular maneuvers of each aircraft. Realizing that a larger, non-aviation-minded audience could only be attracted with promised entertainment, Palen devised a show with the standard triangle of a bad character (in the form of the Black Baron), a good character (in the form of Sir Percy Goodfellow), and an attractive maiden (in the form of Trudy Truelove), and the conflict to win her. But the aircraft remained the real “players.”
That conflict played out today, at the aerodrome’s half-century mark, but the real players, hampered by gusty winds, never made it on to their aerial stage, despite the prerequisite vintage fashion show, parade of antique vehicles, and commemorative performance by the Six-Pence Pipe and Drum World War I Scottish band to mark the occasion. Only the 1931 Great Lakes, the Fleet biplane, and the 1968 Great Lakes had managed to perform “Delsey Dive” and balloon burst maneuvers. Nevertheless, the mostly canceled air show, although undoubtedly disappointing to many in the audience, had emphasized the unpredictability of the era these fragile, unsophisticated designs had represented, which had often been pitted against the elements.
Sunday’s conditions, however, had been the opposite of Saturday’s and, possibly combining the two aerial ventures into a single one, the aerodrome had succeeded in sending all of its flyable pioneer, barnstorming, and World War I aircraft into the flawless blue.
The Great Lakes 2T-1R Speedster, powered by a 160-hp Ranger inverted six-cylinder engine and flown by Tom Daly, performed the show-opening Delsey Dive, while the Avro 504K, powered by its original, 110-hp Le Rhone rotary engine, had followed. The aircraft, built in 1966, had been acquired by Old Rhinebeck in 1971.
Hugh Schoelzel, Old Rhinebeck Air Show President, took the Bleriot XI, powered by its 35-hp, inverted-Y, Anzani engine and bearing serial number 56, for its characteristic short hop above the grass field.
The lumbering Caudron G-3, sporting its four-wheeled main undercarriage and flown by Tom Daly, had trailed the Bleriot. Constructed in 1914, the aircraft, the first to have crossed the Andes Mountains in South America with its 10,000-foot service ceiling, is powered by its original Le Rhone engine and had last been restored in 1999.
The Hanriot, flown by Bill King, is a reproduction aircraft which sports an aerodynamic, mahogany skin fuselage and, like the Bleriot XI and the Caudron G-3, only made a short leap off of the grass.
The Curitss D Pusher, a replica built in 1976 and powered by an original, eight-cylinder, 80-hp Hall Scott water-cooled engine of 1911, had been taxied across the gently-sloping field by Herb Gregory.
The SPAD, which had been acquired by Old Rhinebeck in 1999, is powered by a 160-hp engine and provided a distinct maneuverability contrast with the pioneer aircraft in the air, able to attain 138-mph maximum speeds.
The 1931 Great Lakes, along with the Canadian-built Fleet flown by Tom Daly and the modernized Great Lakes of 1968 flown by Neil Herman, had pursued balloon targets. Ultimate speed and maneuverability had been demonstrated by the Fokker Dr-1, which had featured cantilevered upper, mid, and lower wings devoid of bracing wires and two Spandau 7.29-mm machine guns which had fired through the arc of the prop ahead of them. The triplane had been built by plans captured from the British during World War I.
Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome had not thrived for 50 years by chance. Asked what he believed had been the reason for its longevity, Tom Daly, Air Shows Director for the past seven years, had rattled a long list of unique attributes. “This is the last place left which does anything like this!” he had exclaimed. “It’s all hands-on. It’s very interactive, as opposed to the static displays of a traditional museum. There’s such close proximity to the show, providing realism.”
“It echoes Cole’s original purpose,” he had continued, “of introducing young people to aviation.”
Looking round at the day’s complement of visitors, he had added, with tremendous enthusiasm, “It’s so family-oriented, where you can come and spend the day outside. It’s the only air show which runs every weekend for four months of the year, with rain and wind checks which allow people to return any time if the show its canceled. So many have told me that is the best-kept secret.”
Watching the latest take off of the New Standard D-25, he extolled, “The low-cost of the D-25 flight is at least half of what other comparable, vintage flights cost. The whole family can afford to take it. Some people come from all over the country just to take this flight!”
A Mecca of aviation enthusiasts and professionals, the aerodrome attracts a diverse group. “Every weekend, I have photographers, pilots, writers, aircraft builders here,” he had explained.
The field, which can be considered both remote in distance and remote in time, “makes people feel as if they’ve stepped back into the barnstorming era as soon as they walk through the covered bridge,” he added.
There may, however, be one additional reason for its success-a living expression and reflection of Cole Palen’s life and the product of his inspiration.
Despite countless, sun-up to sun-down days, Palen, fueled by that elusively-pinpointable source, demonstrated that, once you discover your life purpose, that the pursuit of it will not even resemble traditional “work,” permitting you to become engrossed in it in such an immersive way that you virtually transcend the time you use to do so.
After his death on December 7, 1993, his life’s work and accomplishments had been preserved, retained, and perpetuated with the creation of two non-profit educational corporations-the Rhinebeck Aerodrome Museum and Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome Air Shows.
Old Rhinebeck, which has collected, restored, and flown more vintage aircraft from aviation’s first three decades than any other world museum, attracts some 20,000 annual visitors and its signature New Standard D-25 has flown more than 11,000 passengers.
Today, on the occasion of its golden anniversary, the breeze blowing across the gently sloping grass airfield echoes the life lesson Cole Palen had taught with it. Follow your inspiration, it had said. We never really know why we are motivated to do certain things, but that motivation serves to provide direction to our lives. His purchase of a few antique airplanes and airplane pieces, unknown to him at the time, had led to a living aviation museum and aerodrome for generations to enjoy well beyond his own lifetime. Follow your inspirations. They all serve to lead to your life’s purpose and the successful, fulfilling completion of it.
Interest precedes inspiration. Inspiration had brought the wood, fabric, rotary engines, and smell of burning castor oil of aviation’s budding years into the present. Legacy will ensure that they continue into the future.
The July 18-19 weekend will mark the beginning of the next 50 years at the aerodrome…