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The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome

Elizabeth Vielkind, Marist ‘10

Want to experience the thrill of historic flight in the Historic Hudson River Valley? Look no further than Red Hook. This is where the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is located. This museum of World War I aircraft and antique automobiles celebrated its golden anniversary in 2009.

The aerodrome is the inspiration of Cole Palen, who was partially inspired by the existence of the Shuttleworth Collection in England. In 1959 Palen found a farm for sale near the quaint village of Rhinebeck, which included a small farmhouse. He was able to purchase the property by paying the back taxes that were owed on it. He cleared a runway and built makeshift hangars from scrapped materials with his bare hands—and the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome was born. Palen collected aircrafts spanning from 1900 up to the start of World War II. He restored and flew them regularly as his alter-ego “The Black Baron”. These air shows continue to this day from mid-June through mid-October. Biplane rides are available before and after the shows for visitors.

If early original aircrafts did not exist, accurate replicas powered by authentic engines were built at the aerodrome. A sizable collection of veteran and vintage vehicles—nearly all in working order—also was collected, nearly all in working order. In 1960, the first air show took place to an assembled audience of approximately twenty-five people. Palen died on December 8, 1993. With his passing the aviation world and the early aircraft preservation movement in particular lost not only a unique pilot and collector, but also a great character and showman.

The simple early shows led to a philosophy of not only showing the aircraft in their natural environment, but also providing a fun and entertaining day out for the whole family. The aerodrome allows families to take self-guided tours and get up close to airplanes and artifacts in the collection. It does not look like a typical airport nor a typical museum. It is nestled in a grassy, wooded knoll with barns and makeshift buildings serving as hangars much as they did for the barnstormers in the 1920s.

The aerodrome starts the air show with an audience-participation fashion show with children getting dressed up to model period costumes and ride in the antique car parade. The ground show melodrama is built around a “Perils of Pauline” spoof that kids enjoy. The characters: Trudy Truelove, Sir Percy Goodfellow, Pierre Loop de Loop, and the evil Black Baron of Rhinebeck pose for pictures with youngsters (and adults). After the air show, the pilots, also in period costume, stand by the airplanes on the flight line to explain their plane and their relationship to the history of aviation.

Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome features many remarkable World War I and pre-World War I aircraft that can be seen nowhere else in the world today. For example, Palen built a Fokker Triplane that flew for many years. Carrying the American registration number N3221, it was one of his first reproduction aircraft projects to fly when the aerodrome opened. This aircraft and another replica were flown for nearly two decades.

The air shows simply provide the justification to get the antique airplanes into the sky. The aerodrome comes to life with the roar of rotary engines and the smell of burning castor oil used for lubrication. The dedicated aviation enthusiasts who carry on the legacy created by Cole Palen are proud of the fact that all of the airplanes are restored originals or built as accurate reproductions and powered by original rotary engines.

For the 2010 season, the Rhinebeck Aerodrome will launch new wonders. The Fokker D-VII that has been under restoration for two years should be flying. It has had a complete structural rebuild and will be recovered with a period paint scheme. The D-VII was considered by many to be the finest flying airplane in its era. Old Rhinebeck’s Fokker D-VII wings were in need of recovering and some restoration. The lower wing leading edge plywood was repaired where there was some minor damage and the area was reinforced. The lower wings have been recovered and the meticulous work of recreating the original Lozenge camouflage paint scheme has been completed. The upper wing is now receiving the same attention and will be finished soon.

Another addition will be the Stampe, which has been out of service for a number of years. Finding parts for its original engine has proved a difficult task, but they now have been located and are being inspected by an engine rebuilder. The aerodrome plans on having the engine back together by season’s opening and to have the biplane back in the air.

The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is located at 9 Norton Road, Red Hook, NY 12571. They are open mid-June to mid-October. You can learn more about the museum’s collections, air shows, biplane rides, and events by calling 845-752-3200 or visiting them online at www.oldrhinebeck.org.

 

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