Romance, history, obsession take wing here

Antique planes strut their stuff low over the Hudson Valley

Email|Print| Text size + By Clare Innes
Globe Correspondent / August 21, 2005

RHINEBECK, N.Y. -- Now that jets can mock the speed of sound and whisk us from here to there in the course of two cocktails, flight has become humdrum for many of us.

That changes the instant you tear through the wide, blue yonder in a 75-year-old biplane.

At an altitude of 1,000 feet and a cruising speed of 75 miles per hour, the open cockpit of a 1929 New Standard D-25 biplane is a whirl of wind and roar. Wearing goggles and a canvas aviator cap, you can't help but hope that the pilot will swing into a loop-the-loop, and at the same time feel thankful that there is nothing of the kind scheduled for this 15-minute flight.

Far below, tucked into a rumple of woods and fields that enfolds this Hudson River Valley town, other prewar flying machines await their turn in the sky along the grassy strip of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, the only aeronautical museum in the world where most of the 70 pre-World War II specimens can fly -- and do.

Most Saturdays through mid-October, a squadron of faithfully restored aircraft stars in a show reviving the history of flight. On Sundays, the show includes a vaudeville-style performance complete with heroes, villains, and a damsel in distress.

It's not until we are back on terra firma that the pilot mentions that he is not able to see where he is landing because the nose of the plane blocks his view. In a move typical for biplane pilots, he has to turn the plane sideways as he approaches the airstrip, memorize runway conditions, and then straighten out at the last minute to perform a silky-smooth landing. That's the kind of information that makes you wish they served something stronger than soda at the concession stand. But for those who get to fly these rigs, it's part of the excitement.

''There's a romance about the biplane era, when fighter pilots and barnstormers were heroes," says Warren Stevens of Plantsville, Conn., who is a regular fixture at the aerodrome. ''In these open-cockpit airplanes, you can actually reach out and touch the clouds." Stevens has been coming here every year since 1961, when as a child he was captivated by the planes. Engineering and aviation science degrees landed him a job with Sikorsky Aircraft, maker of the Black Hawk helicopter. A triplane-building project brought him back to Old Rhinebeck.

You may soon wonder if you are the only person present who hasn not spent every weekend since the 1960s right here, watching these planes lumber into the air. The place hasn't changed much over the years, and neither has the air show: Pilots pull loop-the-loops, swoops, stalls, headlong dives, and drop ''bombs" with comical inaccuracy on the Evil Black Baron as he kidnaps Trudy Truelove from klutzy Sir Percy Goodfellow.

Airplanes used in the show include biplanes, triplanes, and contraptions seemingly cobbled together from bicycle parts, Luna moth wings, and bed sheets. All are either obsessively restored originals dating from the earliest days of flight or faithful replicas.

Aviation was only about 10 years old when World War I began in 1914. Airplanes were used for spying on the other side's positions. Enemy pilots, faithful to the brotherhood of the sky, often would dip a wing in salute to one another.

The friendly skies came to an end when a French pilot took up a load of rocks and dropped them on other airplanes, ripping holes in the fragile, fabric wings. Soon the planes were armed and pressed into more deadly service.

The oldest flying aircraft in the country, and the second-oldest in the world, is right here: a 1909 Bleriot XI, donated to the collection in 1952 by a Laconia, N.H., man who spied the plane in a junkyard as he bicycled to work.

Several Wright Brothers model replicas, including Kitty Hawk, are on display along with more eccentric flying machines, such as the Passat Ornithopter, looking somewhat like a cross between a giant pencil and a big, fat carrot. A Spirit of St. Louis replica is close to completion and will soon join the show.

Flying machines aren't the only relics that roll across the grassy strip or are stashed in one of 14 hangars. About 40 nonflying vehicles include cars, ambulances, motorcycles, tanks, and fire engines by such pioneers as Renault, Studebaker, Rolls-Royce, Packard, Ford, Buick, Austin, Curtiss, and Indian.

Not sure exactly what you're looking at? It's probable that the person standing next to you is a master woodworker or a metallurgist or a mechanic, or even had a hand in restoring something nearby. You may have to hang onto something solid in the face of the flood of information provoked by the most innocent question, but the answer is always fascinating.

For example, those wooden slabs between the wheels of one airplane are relatives of the metal leaf springs that served as shock absorbers in early autos before coil springs were developed. The thin cord wrapped around the delicate wooden latticework of another airplane wing -- and take a moment to admire the elegant lamination patterns, by the way -- help hold the structure together in a way that preserves the balance of strength and flexibility, especially for those made of easily split bamboo, instead of the sturdier (but heavier) spruce. The fabric covering these wings is no thicker than that of a dress shirt; layers of fingernail-polish-like dope lend it the necessary rigidity. Before 1910, they used a highly flammable concoction of varnish and gasoline.

The 1917 Fokker DR.-1 used by the Evil Black Baron in the show is a replica of the model favored by Manfred von Richthofen, the famous German fighter pilot known as the Red Baron.

Aerodrome founder James Henry ''Cole" Palen (1925-93), a legend in airplane restoration circles, built this replica in 1967, based on the rare bits of information available, including drawings made in 1918 of a Fokker captured by the British. In 1951, Cole bought his first four World War I-era aircraft. Eight years later, he bought the aerodrome site, and put on the first air show in 1960 with his ever-growing collection. His marriage in 1967 put an end to using the living room for overhauling rotary engines.

A nonprofit foundation and a diehard clan of volunteers keep the collection in the air -- and the Evil Black Baron forever vying for the hand of Trudy Truelove.

Contact Clare Innes, a freelance writer in Vermont, at

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