A slip through the covered entrance to Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is like the passage through a time portal to an early aviation era that has somehow been preserved in time, revealing a grass field straddled on either side by red, orange, and yellow trees in the fall reminiscent of the 1910 and 1920 barnstorming days. The hangers, as if ignorant of the calendar, proudly brave the winds, bearing such names as Albatros Werke, Royal Aircraft Factory Farnborough, A.V. Roe and Company, Ltd., and Fokker. But it is the multitude of mono-, bi-, and triplanes which most fiercely wrestles with one’s present-time conception. Vintage music only cements the early-era atmosphere.
Located on tiny, easily-missed Norton Road on the east side of the Hudson River not far from the historic village of Rhinebeck, New York, Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is both the story and start of one person’s dream. Unlike those of others, however, his actually came true, but not until years of perseverance, dedication, and hard work had transformed it into reality.
That person, born James H. Palen, Jr., had had a lifelong dream of recreating an antique era of aviation through a living history museum where vintage aircraft would not only be displayed but would also regularly fly.
Having grown up next to the old Poughkeepsie Airport in New York, Palen earned his Airframe and Powerplant license at the Roosevelt Aviation School on Long Island and subsequently obtained his Private Pilot License. The famous Piper Cub served as his first airplane. The seeds of his aerodrome, however, were planted when he purchased the six remaining partially- and fully-assembled antique aircraft at the school’s museum with his life’s savings, clearing the way for what became the shopping mall of today.
Their eventual destination was a farm he also acquired some 100 miles away in Rhinebeck, but their fuselages and sections had to be transported and trailed behind his truck during numerous crossings of the Whitestone Bridge.
After storage in abandoned chicken coops, the six aircraft, comprised of a 1917 SPAD XII, a 1918 Standard J-1, a 1914 Avro 504K, a 1918 Curtiss Jenny, a 1918 Sopwith Snipe 7F1, and a 1918 Aeromarine 39B, formed his initial fleet and the “aerodrome” was nothing more than a 1,000-foot-long, rocky, swamp-drained clearing called a “runway” and a single crude building that served as a “hangar” on a patch of farmland. Additional aircraft acquisitions—and parts of them — expanded the mostly biplane lineup, after considerable restoration and reconstruction.
“Cole Palen decided airplanes belonged in the air,” Old Rhinebeck’s air show announcer once explained, “so he flew everything he built.” He expressed this with his often-repeated philosophy of, “Keep the dream alive.”
Always motivated by his passion for antique aviation, he continued to expand the crude aerodrome, but it took on new meaning when it began to attract public interest. An initial air show, performed before a crowd of 25 with a handful of World War I aircraft, occurred in 1960 and led to a scheduled one held on the last Sunday of each of the summer months seven years later.
Aerodrome improvements resulted in the lengthening of the grass strip to 1,500 and ultimately 2,000 feet, and the aircraft comprised the largest, privately owned collection in the northeast. Five were used in the filming of “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines.”
Of the 70 aircraft in the collection, which consists of both original ones and authentic replicas with original engines, only a small percentage are maintained in flying condition at any given time.
Its pioneer types include the Bleriot XI, the Demoiselle, the Hanriot, and the Curtiss Model D. The first, the Bleriot XI, was powered by a 35-hp Anzani engine. It was the first heavier-than-air craft to aerially cross the English Channel and the first to be mass-produced. The current example is the world’s oldest still-flying airplane. The US-designed Curtiss D, first flying in 1911 with an 80-hp pusher-propeller Hall Scott engine, survived Lincoln Beachey’s famous Niagara Falls plunge and was instrumental in early ship landings. The US Army and Navy amassed initial experience with the type.
Those in Old Rhinebeck’s World War I collection include the Allied Power-representing Avro 504K, the Curtiss JN-4H Jenny, the Nieuport 10, 11, and 28, the SPAD VIII and XIII, and the Sopwith Camel, and the Axis Power-representing Fokker Dr.1 Triplane, D.VII, and D.VIII.
The Nieuport II was originally intended for the 1914 Gordon Bennett Cup Race, but equipped with a Lewis gun, the rapidly-climbing, highly maneuverable type ultimately became the primary equipment of the Lafayette Escadrille, the American volunteer group.
The Black Baron-famed Fokker Dr.1 was manufactured in Schwerin, Germany, in 1917 and offered ultimate contemporaneous performance: a 115-mph speed, a 1,750-fpm climb rate, feisty maneuverability, and a two-hour airborne duration, perhaps explaining Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s overwhelming preference for the type. The replica on display was interestingly built from plans devised after a British capture of a Dr.1.
In the United States, attention turned from destruction to peaceful application. The Curtiss JN-4H Jenny, represented by the aerodrome’s replica, served as both an initial trainer for pilots who later transitioned to fighters in Europe and operated the first scheduled US air mail route in 1918.
Golden Age types include the Pitcairn Mailwing, the de Havilland DH.82 Tiger Moth, the Fleet 16B, the Great Lakes Sport Trainer, the Travel Air Model A, the Davis DW1, and the Stampe SV-4B.The Great Lakes, built by the Great Lakes Aircraft Corporation in Cleveland, Ohio, was a dual-seat trainer. Because it was highly maneuverable, it held the world record for the number of consecutive outside loops, or 131, in its 2-T-1a version.
The current air show program, which runs from mid-June to mid-October, weather permitting, features the “History of Flight” spectacle on Saturdays and the “World War I” one on Sundays. It includes treetop-high sprints of the pioneer aircraft before immediate re-landings on the grass, but otherwise more dramatic maneuvers of the World War I and Lindbergh era designs, including aerobatics, dogfights, bomb raids, balloon bursts, parachutists, and “Delsey drives.”
Many air show “characters” have evolved over the years and bred “Old Rhinebeck famous” names such as the Black Baron, Trudy Truelove, Sir Percey Goodfellow, Officer O’Malley, the Keystone Cops, Madame Fifi, and the Flying Farmer.
The experience can be capped with a 15-minute flight experience in a four-passenger, open-cockpit Warren Disbrow D-25 biplane designed by Charles Healy Day as a successor to his earlier GD-24 series airframe in 1929—complete with goggles and earplugs. Accelerating between 70 and 80 mph, as registered by the port wing wire brace strut-installed, wind-actuated-airspeed indicator on a recent October flight, the biplane surmounted the silver surface of the Hudson River as its passengers were bombarded by engine-emitted slipstream and spitting castor oil.
As the final immersion in Old Rhinebeck’s time portal, the flight transported them into World War I skies, enabling them to experience what the pilots in the air show did as they performed their own maneuvers. Later rudder-induced into a left bank toward the aerodrome after an all-too-short aerial stint, the D-25, now side-slipped into an almost vertical, but controlled descent toward the white “X” marking its threshold, flared and settled on to the hill at a power-reduced 50-mph, its two main wheels absorbing the alight and brief deceleration. Taxiing down two-thirds of the grass strip, the still-sputtering, quad-passenger biplane swung around to the right with the aid of its tail wheel and ceased movement at the “Biplane Rides” booth, where another group of four eagerly awaited their experience.
Although Cole Palen made his own last flight to eternity on December 7, 1993, he left more than the vintage aircraft aerodrome he had created through his passion for and dream of a living aviation museum in the Hudson Valley. He also left a legacy. Follow your inspirations. They all serve to lead to your life’s purpose and the successful, fulfilling completion of it, it could only be interpreted.
His purchase of a few antique airplanes and airplane pieces, unknown to him at the time, led to a living aviation museum and aerodrome for generations to learn from, experience, and enjoy well beyond his own lifetime. As he had often advocated, “keep the dream alive,” a goal he undoubtedly achieved on many levels.