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Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome Celebrates Its New York Aviation Roots

Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome Celebrates Its New York Aviation Roots

“Our next aircraft-because it’s New York State Aviation Day-is the Curtiss Model D Pusher, built right here in Hammondsport, New York,” announced Jim Hare on that hot, August 12, 2012, day, as the yellow biplane taxied across the lightly wind-swept grass field beneath a canvas brushed with dabs of cumulous at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome.

Recounting his numerous contributions, Jim concluded, “Glenn Curtiss-New York State’s aviation hero!”

Yet, it was on this day that the aerodrome showcased many of New York’s aviation contributions, celebrating roots that ultimately became its own.

“The relevance of this weekend is to showcase that portion of our collection which pays homage to New York State,” said Neill Herman, Old Rhinebeck’s Air Show President. “From Lindbergh’s famous transatlantic flight to the contributions of Curtiss, New York-being a big trade capital at the time-played a major role as a hub of aviation development. Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is a focal point of tourism for New York State and we have a particular interest in showcasing New York’s contributions.”

Many of these “contributions,” however, can be gleaned from the aircraft displayed in its museum buildings located across Norton Road from the airfield and up the hill.

The Thomas Model E Pusher, for instance, is one of them. Suspended from the ceiling of the Pioneer Building, this century-old design, sporting its fabric-covered sesqui biplane wings, dual-wheeled undercarriage, aft-mounted wooden propeller, and forward-protruding spruce skids appears as if it were making an approach to the movie set of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines.

Brainchild of W. T. Thomas, an Englishman who had emigrated to the US and established his own aircraft company in Bath, New York, with his brother, Oliver, it offers features that are traceable to those of Curtiss, with which he had initial experience in Hammondsport. Experimenting with his own Curtiss-like machine in 1908, W. T. Thomas produced the Model E Pusher during the winter of 1909 to 1910, and, piloted by Walter Johnson, it partook of exhibitions in 1911. A refined version appeared the following year, only a decade after the Wright Brothers had first flown at Kitty Hawk.

According to the sign under the aircraft in the Pioneer Building, “This aircraft is one of 12 manufactured by W. T. Thomas, Bath, New York. It was his second design and in November of 1912 an aircraft of this type established the two-place world’s endurance record, flying for three hours, 52 minutes.”

It hardly began that way.

“The Pusher was a gift from Owen Billman,” said Jim Hare. “It was found in a barn up in central New York (and was once owned by pioneer pilot Earl Frits). The wings were being used to protect tomato plants from the cold.”

Cole Palen, having been endowed with that elusively-defined ability to take the remaining atom of an airframe and transform it into a full-fledged flying machine, proceeded to do so with the Model E, repackaging scraps, parts, and pieces into a vehicle that would later take him aloft in his official “aircraft factory” normally designated a “living room.”

But, part of that sixth sense hinged upon authenticity and nothing could have ensured it more than a personal visit with its builder, W. T. Thomas himself, who by then had been residing in Florida.

“He actually met Thomas in Florida and went down with Mike Lockhart, the first aerodrome kid here,” continued Jim.

Beyond Cole’s expectations, he was given access to Thomas’s personal files, whose xeroxed copies enabled him to reproduce the airplane in Rhinebeck with redundant accuracy.

Yet, because of his insistence upon authenticity, the aircraft which took shape clearly reflected its Curtiss control-inspired lineage, itself powered by a 90-hp Curtiss OX-5 engine.

“(It was) an awkward machine to fly… because its controls did not follow the standard system,” according to Gordon Bainbridge in his book, The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome (Exposition Press, 1977), and caused one “to reverse one’s trained flight reflexes to control the ship.” A wheel-mounted rocking post, for instance, actuated the dual-tailed rudders, while an aileron-connected seat enabled the pilot to bank. The throttle took the form of a foot pedal.

Although the wheel’s forward and aft movement deflected the elevator and therefore provided the only semblance of conventional control, it resulted in “Cole confusion,” according to Bainbridge, as he continually made the right inputs into the wrong controls and sustained two damage-producing, repair-requiring mishaps before he successfully surmounted the sky in another of his hand-to-air transformations.

After 15 minutes aloft, the Thomas Pusher announced its approach through the “throb of (its) laboring engine,” again according to Bainbridge. “The sight was awe-inspiring as the sun danced momentarily on the great expanse of the biplane’s varnished wings, and, as if etched against the clouds, the primitive craft… land(ed) like some huge predatory bird out of the past.”

Although Cole had shared the construction and test flying process with his team of Palen Passion Followers, he had been particularly secretive about its purpose, which he initially only revealed as a flight from the aerodrome to New York.

“(It was) for the purpose of appearing on the TV show, I’ve Got a Secret,” said Jim.

Embarking on this journey in a more than half a century old design with less than standard controls, and attempting to cover half the distance that Curtiss had in his Albany Flyer, he could have been re-enacting part of that Albany-to-New York flight when he lifted off of the aerodrome on April 23, 1965. But, perhaps he pushed the Pusher too far: a cracked brass fitting, caused by excessive vibration, resulted in a premature landing at Stormville Airport, 30 miles away.

Despite blustery conditions and frigid temperatures aloft the following day, never-paling, no-problem Palen bridged the gap between Stomville and Armonk and completed his flight plan on the third day.

Crossing the Whitestone Bridge in the biplane, he had, in many ways, returned to his and Old Rhinebeck’s roots, since it had been the same bridge he had crossed 15 years earlier by road, pulling the still-lifeless airframes that would ultimately become its initial fleet behind him.

Landing at Flushing Airport, the airplane signified a full-cycle return, representing the time warp which Cole Palen had created in the mid-Hudson Valley and from which it seemed to have escaped.

Shipped to Manhattan, it and its pilot appeared on the television show.

After flying for two years at the aerodrome, it was relegated to its present static display status in the Pioneer Building.

Another New York design, marking the transition from Thomas to Thomas-Morse, and from pusher to tractor, is located in the History of Flight Building and takes form as the Scout.

After supplying two seaplanes to the Navy and a single land plane to the Signal Corps in 1915, the Thomas Brothers had merged with the Morse Chain Company two years later, relocating to Ithaca, its own base, and redesignated the Thomas-Morse Corporation.

Entrusted with the design of US-indigenous fighters to avoid reliance on existing European types, it was appointed the task of producing a single-seat, but superior counterpart to the SPAD in the spring of 1918.

The 3-POLB-“three-place open land biplane”–Thomas S-4, designed by B. Douglas Thomas in 1916 before the Morse merger, demonstrated less than adequate performance to the Army when it flew in prototype form, but it fit military trainer needs like a glove and 100 of the type, dubbed the S-4B, were ordered. Identical to the prototype, they featured shorter fuselages.

Powered by a nine-cylinder, 100-hp, Gnome Monosaupape 9-B rotary engine partially enclosed by a circular, open-fronted cowling, the S-4B Scout sported a wooden, wire-braced, fabric-covered box girder fuselage and equally constructed biplane wings, the lower of which was mounted with dihedral. Single-bay interplane struts connected the two. Ailerons, located on the upper plane, were actuated by means of vertical rods. It rested on single, rubber cord-sprung wheels attached to wooden Vee struts.

According to the plaque next to the 80-hp Le Rhone engined S-4B in the History of Flight Building, “An American effort to produce a fighter type for the Great War, it became our advanced pursuit trainer. This example is the last of 100 S-4Bs. S-4Cs followed. There were 497 manufactured.”

Built in 1917, Old Rhinebeck’s example was originally employed as a pilot trainer by the Signal Corps before being acquired by Frank Sharpless of Wisconsin and ceded to several subsequent owners. It had, for a while, been stored in a hayloft. Between 1963 and 1973, it had been on display at the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

Acquired form the Woodward Estate set up by owner Dwight Woodward’s wife after his passing, it joined the air show circuit before it was retired.

“The Scout is one of my favorites,” said Neill. “There’s been talk about restoring it and flying it again. It’s an original and we’re proud of that.”

The succeeding S-4C, incorporating modifications based upon the Nieuport 17 specifically sent to the Thomas-Morse factory in Ithaca to study, featured a 19.10-foot overall length and shorter wings, spanning 26.6 and 25.6 feet, respectively, and straight–as opposed to the previously swept-back–aileron trailing edges. They were deflected by means of push rod and torque tube actuators.

Powered by a nine-cylinder, 80-hp Le Rhone 9-C rotary engine, the aircraft had a 1,354-pound gross weight and could attain 100-mph speeds at sea level and 15,000-foot service ceilings. Armament consisted of either a 0.30-inch Marlin machine gun or a camera gun.

Pilot nicknamed the “Tommy,” it was considered one of the best US-designed World War I trainers and was used by almost all pursuit flying schools in 1918.

“The Scout never saw much (fighting) action,” said Neill, “but the progress its design made was remarkable and it made a significant contribution (as a trainer).”

“(Here at Old Rhinebeck), the Scout wasn’t very controllable on the ground,” said Bill King, long-time aerodrome pilot who is virtually synonymous with the Hanriot he flew. “It was so heavy in the tail that it only flew a couple of seasons. But it’s a great example of an original World War I airplane.”

Yet another example of a New York-indigenous design in the Old Rhinebeck collection is the Brunner-Winkle Model CK Bird in the Golden Age Building.

Its manufacturer, the Brunner-Winkle Company, was founded by William Winkle, who served as its president, and Joseph Brunner, who was its secretary, in 1928, two years after it had first planted its roots in Long Island soil as the Royal Aircraft Factory at Roosevelt Field in Garden City. Its new base became 12 Haverkamp Street in Glendale, Queens.

The aircraft itself, designed by Michael Gregor, was intended as a three-place, open-cockpit biplane with superior performance, powered by then-plentiful, inexpensive surplus eight-cylinder, water-cooled, 90-hp Curtiss OX-5 engines.

Featuring a steel tubing fuselage, which rendered a 34-foot length, and wooden framed sesqui wings, whose span totaled 22.3 feet, it otherwise employed fabric covering. The cabinetmaker assembled wings themselves produced the type’s performance because the upper one’s area was almost twice that of the lower’s, enabling it to take off in 100 feet during no-wind conditions, climb out at 40 mph, and offer admirable slow-speed handling characteristics, yet cruise at 80.

Its passenger cockpit, forward of the pilot’s, facilitated weight and balance, since varying loads were always placed in line with the wings’ center of lift.

Its construction process entailed trucking its fuselage, wings, and tail surfaces from Glendale to the Clinton Avenue side of Roosevelt Field, location of Brunner-Winkle’s final assembly hangar, before each airplane was test flown and delivered to its respective customer.

It was considered the best of the then-current OX-5 powered aircraft.

“It wasn’t quite as popular as the Wacos and Travelairs,” said Jim. “But it was a great short-field plane. It has a sesqui wing-very advanced for its time. They changed the OX-5 for the Kinner engine, and its performance improved even more.”

Reducing its reliance on the increasingly scarce Curtiss OX-5 powerplant, Brunner-Winkle succeeded the Model A with the Model B in 1929, powered by the five-cylinder, air-cooled, 100-hp Kinner K-5, the engine itself offered to satisfy the burgeoning aviation industry’s demand.

“In 1931, 42 of this type of aircraft were manufactured,” according to the plaque next to the Model B at Old Rhinebeck. “This aircraft was a popular barnstorming plane of the period, capable of carrying three passengers at a time. It barnstormed here at Old Rhinebeck for many years.”

“It was Old Rhinebeck’s first rides-plane,” said Jim.

Several feats established the Bird’s fame.

According to The Brunner-Winkle BIRD article written by John Talmage, “Charles Lindbergh taught Anne Morrow Lindbergh to fly in a Bird at the Long Island Aviation Country Club in Hicksville… He chose (it)… because he knew what a fine, dependable, and honestly behaved craft it was, and he wanted the very best in which to teach (his wife).” She subsequently soloed in it at the same club.

Elinor Smith set a new world endurance record for women in 1929, remaining aloft in one over Roosevelt Field for more than 13 hours, while two of the type finished in sixth and seventh places in the 1931 National Air Tour, having averaged 100 mph.

Restoration of Old Rhinebeck’s example, begun by Nick Kucki of Chicago during the 1960s, was handed off to H. N. “Dusty” Rhodes when it had reached the 80-percent completion level, and he opened the curtain on Nebraska’s Centennial Celebration after he had re-enacted the first night airmail flight with it on February 22, 1967, braving snow, 12-degree temperatures, and loss of an engine cylinder.

Draped in a dark yellow paint scheme with red-trimmed wing leading edges, it sports the notations on its fuselage sides: “First night air mail flight-2-22-21. Nebraska Centennial re-enactment-2-22-67.”

Flying it “home” from that state to Cole’s after he had acquired it, he was forced to make an emergency landing at a military air base just short of it.

Consumed, like so many other airplane companies, by Depression’s bite, Brunner-Winkle was forced to close its hangar doors in 1931 after some 200 Model A and B Birds had flown into the wild through them.

“(Nevertheless), the Bird was a proud creation of Long Islanders,” according to the Talmage article, “and its reputation, wherever it flew… said volumes about what the people of Long Island were to the aviation world.”

It is from those Long Island-and specifically Roosevelt Field-roots that Old Rhinebeck grew from the six seedlings Cole Palen had cultivated into the current six dozen in the collection, and with which the aerodrome had been able to celebrate those New York aviation roots, along with its own, on this August day.

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