02 Jan Mid-Nineties Memories of Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome
Although the types of aircraft at Cole Palen’s Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome have changed over the years because of weekend usage, maintenance, refurbishment, and the need to enter and exit semi-retirement, certain ones were synonymous with both air show and year. This article takes a look at a mid-1990s one.
Passing through the covered bridge time portal, I entered the rolling grass, barnstorming-reminiscent air field on an October Sunday in 1996. Immediately beyond the ticket booth was the Curtiss Model D biplane on a small grass patch, not far from the Aerodrome Canteen and striped yellow-and-white tent.
Nosed into the short fence were aircraft that represented the pioneer, World War I, and Golden Age eras of aviation beneath a crystal blue sky, the first in a series of successive weekends to have afforded such ideal weather, while the surrounding trees were autumn-tinged and -torched auburn, lemon, and lime. The original, wall-devoid hangar, indicated by the “Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome 1” designation, was across the field and the first, I later learned, that aerodrome founder Cole Palen, whose philosophy was to “keep the dream alive” by keeping even century-old airplanes in the sky, was the first he built.
The aromas of the Aerodrome Canteen, as always, beckoned me for lunch, which usually consisted of a hamburger piled high with fried onions, sliced tomatoes, and pickles, from the “free fixin’s” bar and a side of shoestring French fried potatoes.
The Sunday “World War I” air show, as opposed to the Saturday “History of Flight” one standardly took place between 1430 and 1600 and the optimum view of it was from the bench seats in the middle of the field, across from the wooden stage.
It began, as both did, with a vintage fashion show, whose audience volunteers changed into period dress in the red, track-cradled caboose, and the atmosphere, setting the stage for the early-1900s, was enhanced by several early-20th century functioning vehicles-in this case, a 1909 Renault Touring Car, a 1911 Baker Electric, a 1914 Ford Model T, a 1916 Studebaker, and a 1929 Franklin.
Although the air show itself featured audience-attracting features, characters, and antics, such as Rocket man, the oversized bicycle, the Delsey dive, the balloon burst, a parachute jump, the Black Baron, Trudy Truelove, Madame Fifi, and mock dogfights, the stars on the aerial stage were the aircraft, which were either original airframes or reproductions with original engines.
From the World War I era, these included the Avro 504K from Great Britain, the Nieuport 11 from France, the Fokker Dr.1 triplane and D.VII with its seven Swabian paint scheme from Germany, and the Curtiss JN-4H Hispano-Suiza engine-powered Jenny from the US today.
There were also several from the Golden Age era.
The first of these was the Pitcairn Mailwing. Catalyst for the design was the January 29, 1927 award of Contract Air Mail (CAM) Route 19, between New York and Atlanta, to Pitcairn Aviation, which elected to employee a fleet of PA-5 Mailwing aircraft it itself produced. Based upon its predecessor PA-4’s configuration, it incorporated an enclosed, fireproof, 26-cubic-foot forward cockpit capable of carrying up to 500 pounds of express, yet could maintain a center-of-gravity that only varied by an inch if it were left empty.
Powered by a 220-hp Wright J5-9 engine, it sported a 33-foot upper and 30-foot lower wing, whose collective area was 252 square feet, and the aircraft, with a 2,620-pound gross and 1,008-pound useful weight, could climb at 100-fpm and reach speeds as high as 131 mph in level flight.
Rolled out of its Bryn Athyn factory six months later, on June 17, it sported its black fuselage and golden wings, which were staggered and the lower of which incorporated dihedral.
“To that time, air mail planes had been like mail trucks, ponderous and purposeful, strictly utilitarian in appearance, heavy on the controls,” according to Frank Kingston Smith in “Legacy of Wings: The Harold E. Pitcairn Story” (Jason Aronson, Inc, 1981, p. 109). “By contrast, the black-and-gold Pitcairn was a poem aloft, twisting and turning in effortless flight, light and quick on the controls, a scintillating performer, yet obviously with the strength to handle turbulent conditions.”
Subsequently awarded Contract Air Mail Route 25, between Atlanta and Miami, on November 19, Pitcairn Aviation eventually covered the Eastern seaboard.
Much in demand, the Mailwing was ordered by other carriers to operate their own mail routes, including Colonial Air Transport from Boston to New York, Texas Air Transport, and Clifford Ball.
Old Rhinebeck’s example represented the slightly stretched PA-7. Built to cater to ever increasing mail transport demand, this Super Mailwing, incorporating considerable line pilot recommendation, began as the 50th PA-6 on the production line, but introduced a modified forward fuselage profile to augment increased in flight speed and stability, a two-foot increase in length to 23.9 feet, a rounded rudder and wingtips, a 240-hp Wright J6-7 engine, a 42-cubic-foot mail compartment, a 630-pound payload, and a 3,050-pound gross weight, as opposed to the PA-5’s 2,620.
Another Golden Age type in the air show circuit, although with origins across the Atlantic, was the de Havilland DH.82 Tiger Moth.
It can trace its roots to the “solution” Sir Geoffrey de Havilland sought to the two previous light sport planes he designed, but which failed to provide the performance he conceptualized, including the single-seat, low-wing DH.53 Humming Bird monoplane of 1923 and the two- to three-seat DH.51 biplane of two years later.
The latter served as the foundation of a scaled-down, dual-place biplane designated the DH.60 Moth appropriately powered by a 60-hp engine that optimized it for instructional and cross country flying. Highly successful, it was produced in the thousands between 1925 and the mid-1930s.
Employing a Gipsy engine, whose development took place at the end of the decade, the succeeding DH.71 was a diminutive, single-place, low-wing monoplane with a span of all of 19 feet, but it could achieve service ceilings of 19,191 feet and speed records of 186.47 mph. Most importantly, however, was the fact that it was the first design to carry the “Tiger Moth” name.
Sparking a series of iterations and modifications, it culminated in the definitive DH.82 Tiger Moth after its prototype, registered G-ABRC, first flew on October 26, 1931 and the Royal Air Force adopted it as its basic trainer. One hundred thirty five were built.
An order for 50 of an improved version followed in late-1934. Designated DH.82A, it was powered by a 130-hp Gipsy Major 1 engine, incorporated two tandem open cockpits, and featured swept, staggered wings mounted with dihedral. With a 1,825-pound gross weight, it could climb at 635 fpm, achieve a 104-mph speed, and had a 14,000-foot service ceiling.
Although the type was delivered to civilian-operated Elementary and Reserve flying schools, its usefulness was only beginning. With the outbreak of the Second World War, production was unprecedented. After 1,424 DH.82As were built, assembly was transferred from Hatfield to Morris Motors, Ltd., in Cowley, Oxford, in 1941, where an additional 3,433 aircraft were built, followed by 1,533 in Canada, 132 in New Zealand, and 1,095 in Australia.
After the war, the market was saturated with this former military trainer.
“From then on the Tiger Moth was engaged in a wide variety of aerial work,” according to A. J. Jackson in “The de Havilland Tiger Moth” (Profile Publications, 1966, p. 12), “including instructional flying, glider towing, dropping parachutists, or banner towing all over the world, but it will be remembered chiefly for its pioneering work in establishing agricultural aviation as a new and thriving industry.”
Two of the Tiger Moths to have performed in Old Rhinebeck’s weekend air shows were owned by the now late-Bill King and Mike Maniatis.
Another mid- to late-1990s staple in Old Rhinebeck skies was the Great Lakes sport trainer, registered NC304Y.
Built by the Great Lakes Aircraft Corporation of Cleveland, Ohio, in early-1929 to serve as a small, dual-seat trainer, it was a single-bay, fabric-covered biplane powered by an 85-hp Cirrus II inline engine designated the 2-T-1, which first flew in prototype form that March.
As a highly maneuverable airplane, it held the world record for the number of consecutive outside loops-a total of 131-in its 2-T-1a guise.
Because of its popularity, it was re-produced in 1970 and then in 2011, incorporating new construction materials, from spruce to Douglas fir to metal, and significantly uprated instrumentation and engines.
“Versions of the Great Lakes and Baby Great Lakes have been built by various companies and individuals since the golden era, underlying how much these beautiful machines still mean to modern generations,” according to Mike Vines in “Return to Rhinebeck: Flying Vintage Aeroplanes” (Airlife Publishing, Ltd,, 1998, p. 57). “(The) Great lakes 2T-1MS, NC304Y, serial number 191, dating from 1930, started life as a 2-T-1E powered with a four-cylinder inline inverted ACE Cirrus Hi-Drive engine of 95 hp. A change to a Menasco Private 125 hp makes it officially a 2T-1MS model. NC304Y was always a great favorite of Cole’s… “
Yet another Golden Age staple was the Travel Air, whose Model A was produced by the Travel Air Manufacturing Company established in 1925 in Wichita, Kansas.
Designed as an improved, metal-framed successor to the previous wooden Swallow, it featured a fabric-covered, steel tube fuselage, dual tandem open cockpits (although a bench seat in the forward one could theoretically accommodate two passengers), and staggered, N-strut braced wings. Augmenting its performance, however, were features characteristic of Germany’s World War I Fokker D.VII fighter, including overhung, horn-balanced ailerons and rudders that served to counteract aerodynamic resistance during flight surface deflections, increase aircraft response rates, and provide lighter pilot control feel. They also gave the type its characteristic vertical tail “elephant ear” appearance.
Because of its construction simplicity, reliability, capability, durability, efficiency, and performance, it outsold all rival types during the 1920s and 1930s, only seriously competing with Waco’s own designs, and it found numerous applications, from stunt flying to barnstorming, air racing, sport and bush flying, and air taxiing. Along with the Stearman Kaydet, it was the most extensively used crop duster.
Also often in Old Rhinebeck’s air show skies was Gene DeMarco’s “Lucky 7” Stampe SV.4B.
Based upon the initial SV.4 built by Stampe et Vertongen in Antwerp, Belgium, that flew in 1933, this two-place, highly swept wing biplane trainer was powered, in its SV.4B version, by a 140-hp Renault 4-PO5 engine. Fitted with a 145-hp de Havilland Gipsy Major X or Blackburn Cirrus Major X engine, its SV.4B counterpart, with a 27.6-foot wingspan and 194.4-square-foot area, had a 1,697-pound gross weight. Its maximum speed was 116 mph and its service ceiling was 20,000 feet.
Although its production was modest, accounting for 35 airframes before World War II and 65 after it, its acquisition by Stampe et Renard, along with the license-built examples of the SV.4C in France and Algeria with 140-hp Renault 4-Pei powerplants, resulted in another 940 produced between 1948 and 1955 to fulfill the need for a French primary trainer.
Yet another frequent player in mid-1990s air show skies was the Davis D-1W. Tracing its roots to the V-3, it was produced by the Davis Aircraft Corporation, which was established by Walter C. Davis after he purchased and merged the Vulcan Aircraft Company and the Doyle Aero Company. Acquiring the rights for the Vulcan American Moth, he produced a parasol monoplane modified by engineer Dwight Huntington and certified on September 6, 1929.
Although the improved Davis W-1 that appeared two months later, on November 8, offered promise, the Wall Street Crash of 1929, along with a fire that destroyed the company’s hangar and production facilities, forced it to cease operations.
Featuring a rectangular, fabric-covered, welded steel tube fuselage and a single 30.2-foot high, two-spar parasol wing strut-braced to the lower fuselage, the Davis D-1W was powered by a 125-hp, seven-cylinder, air-cooled Warren Scarab radial engine. Primarily employed in private and sport flying venues, it had a 1,461-pound maximum weight, 142-mph speed, and a 480-mile range.
Aircraft N532K regularly flew at Old Rhinebeck.
“(The) Davis D-1W, dating from 1929, would have been fitted originally with a 110-hp Warner radial, hence the ‘W” designation,” according to Vines (ibid, p. 127). “It is in fact now powered by a 125-hp Warner powerplant. This classic sport airplane was conceived by the Vulcan Aircraft Company as the American answer to the success of de Havilland’s Moth series of biplanes in England. They came to greater prominence when ex-auto maker Walter Davis acquired the manufacturing rights, but due to the economic climate of the time, only about sixty of these beautiful parasol-winged monoplanes were built.”
None of the World War I air shows of the nineties and even those in the next decade were complete without Stan Segalla, who was dubbed “the flying farmer” and who flew a 1947 PA-11 Canary yellow Piper Cub registered N4568M.
A World War II veteran who flew at Old Rhinebeck in the summer and taught the art of aerobatic maneuvers in a Decathlon 180 in Venice, Florida, in the winter, he owned some 39 single-engine airplanes, taught more than 10,000 pilots, and logged in excess of 21,000 hours in more than half a century in the sky.
While aircraft always took center stage at the aerodrome, it was he, as a person of comedic skill, who did, his act always beginning with an ignorant, “anonymous” staff member in disguise chasing the Piper Cub, which, controlled by Segalla, circled and escaped his capture on the ground. The antics in the air, maneuvers, and single-wheel and pinpoint landings emphasized the ultimate man-and-machine merge, as the aircraft became nothing short of an extension of him.
One of the original Cole Palen team members who molded and morphed the vintage aviation experience for novice spectators, he retired in 2008 and slipped the surly bonds of earth eight years later at 91-years-old.
“A fixture at the aerodrome since its inception,” according to an Old Rhinebeck statement, “Stanley could always be found on Sundays hamming it up in the crowd, before yet again managing to get away in the Piper Cub and wowing the spectators. His character ‘One-Shot-Gatling’ was popular throughout the air show’s early heydays, piloting the Avro 504K in support of Sir Percy in the everlasting saga that played itself out every weekend in the skies over Rhinebeck. A pilot’s pilot, Stan elevated everyone around him with his experience and skill at the controls of anything he flew. He loved to give rides before and after the shows to any takers, often putting them through a full routine in his Cub or Decathlon, always a smile on the passenger’s face when he brought them back to the flight line.”
While Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome’s pioneer aircraft took center stage in its Saturday “History of Flight” air shows and its World War I designs did in its Sunday “World War I” performances, these 1920 and 1930 aircraft, which often partook of both, could have merited a “Golden Age Air Show” of their own.
Jackson, Aubrey Joseph. The de Havilland Tiger Moth. Leatherhead, Surrey, England: Profile Publications, 1966.
Smith, Frank Kingston. Legacy of Wings: The Harold F. Pitcairn Story. New York: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1981.
Vines, Mike. Return to Rhinebeck. Shrewsbury, England: Airlife Publishing, Ltd., 1998.