Temporary Barnstormer at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome
Tinged by the fall air and beckoned by the crystal blue dome of the sky at Cole Palen’s Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in early October, I made my way past the snack stand and the new field gift shop to the Biplanes Rides Booth, reserving one of the four passenger seats on Hudson Valley Air Tours’ New Standard D-25 open-cockpit aircraft.
My ticket, now at an even $100 and a significant increase over its $25 1995 price, would ensure me space on Flight HV 007, which departed at 1215. Although unofficial, the flight number was devised from the fact that it was the seventh ascent of the day.
I would be accompanied by a young couple, who would share the forward of the two bench seats, and a white bearded man, who would join me in mine behind them. The pilot, of course, with his own cockpit, was situated behind all of us.
The sign at the departure terminal-translated as “outside Rides Booth”-advised, “New Standard D-25, American, 1928, engine – 220-hp Continental. Designed expressly for the barnstormer, the D.25 was Charles Day’s 25th aircraft design. It carried four paying passengers, was easy to fly, operated out of the smallest fields, and used modern (1928) construction techniques. This, our first New Standard, has carried over 11,000 passengers here at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome.”
It was not entirely correct. The passenger total was only accurate several years ago and its single D-25, registered N19157, had since been joined by a second, N176H, which I would fly for the first time today, my other Hudson Valley aerial sightseeing flights having occurred in 1995, 2000, and 2006.
Field-settling after its previous circuit, it taxied to the booth and disgorged its quadruplet of passengers, before the next four, armed with the pre-departure safety briefing and clad in helmets and goggles, were permitted to traverse the grass to the two-step “ramp” positioned at the lower wing’s trailing edge. Turn-around time of this now 89-year-old airplane could be measured in minutes.
Following the root walking strip of the black-fuselage, orange-wing biplane, whose engine turned and sputtered the entire time, I stepped into the cockpit-and into the Golden Age of barnstorming. Claiming the left of the two rear bench seats (2A) and extending my seatbelt, like a metal handshake, to that of the passenger’s next to me in 2B, I intimately interconnected it with his. Shared bench seats meant shared seatbelts.
The assault of the ears and nose, even with its propeller in idle rotation, resulted in an instant immersion into late-1920s, cabin-devoid technology. So fierce was the slipstream, that my nostrils could not ingest the air and the throaty sputter of the engine was deafening. I had, like on my other open-cockpit occasions, hoped to experience this era of aviation through my senses. Perhaps I was-and I was still on the ground no less.
If its idle setting was a snooze, then its throttle advance resulted in a rude awakening. Brake-released, the biplane commenced its sprint over the grass toward the runway’s threshold, which, in this case, was the field’s south end, turf-blanketed hill, surmounting it and swinging around to its right, in a 180-degree turn, on its tailwheel.
There was no take off clearance. There was no radio with which to provide it. Nor was there any other ground traffic with which to be concerned.
A full throttle advance, opening the fuel’s arteries and pumping the aircraft’s engine with life-exploding plasma, induced the airplane into gravity-aided momentum down the hill, at the bottom of which its tail rose in horizontal stabilizer flight, enabling the wings to do the rest and generate lift.
The slipstream created by the rotating propeller and the increasing air speed, hopelessly unrestricted by the tiny Plexiglas windshield, pounded my face and served as such an onslaught to my nostrils, that they ironically failed to accept, despite the overabundance of air, the very substance that was needed by my lungs.
It certainly reached the wings, however, its increased speed inversely countered by its decreased pressure and enabling the biplane to jump off the rolling grass strip. Dual wings signified double the amount of surface area and its lift-generating capability.
Surrendering to the cold, brisk, crystal blue, it passed the line of aircraft seemingly tucked into a preserved pocket of history on the port side in the form of a Caudron G.III, an Albatros D.Va, and a Fokker Dr.1 triplane.
Surmounting the north end of the field and briefly banking to the left, the D-25 triumphed over the size-decreasing verdure of the Hudson Valley. Norton Road, now a ribbon narrower than the type used in package wrapping, passed under the port wing. Viewed from a different and downward perspective, it was the road from which I had looked up at this very airplane as I had approached the aerodrome, which now receded behind my left shoulder.
Having transcended the earth’s physical boundaries, the D-25 sliced through the blue tinged with an autumn bite, its orange, strut-interconnected, fabric-covered wings passing over the still mostly green tree and farmland patches only occasionally highlighted by a lemon sentinel.
A pause facilitated my internal contemplation, both of the four-person cabin and my location in it on previous surreys into Cole Palen’s barnstorming skies. I currently occupied my original seat-that is, the one on which I had been introduced to the element-exposed era of air travel back in 1995.
In the forward, right of the two seats-1B-had sat Jose, one of my Farmingdale State University Aviation History Course co-students and next to him in 1A, Christian, as I recall, another in our class. I replaced Jose on my next two aerial ascents in 2000 and 2006 and my mother had sat next to me on both of them.
Now I theoretically sat behind her-or at least her seat-but, since she left the physical plane some 20 months earlier, I could only include her on my present flight by coming as close to the surly slip of earthly bonds and soaring of which her soul was now assuredly capable. It was up here now with me, I knew.
Cole Palen himself, founder of his famous aerodrome, eclipsed the line between the physical and eternal dimensions two years before that initial fight in 1995, and, after graduation, I never saw Jose or Christian again. Well, at least I still had myself.
The wind, perhaps echoing them all, wrestled with the engine for sound dominance, but, although the latter technically won, both roared and howled in their own way. Could the open-cockpit experience have been just as authentic without them? I doubt it.
Skirting the fringes of the Hudson River, an azure snake that interspersed the verdant topography, the D-25 banked left before reaching the steel, erector set resembling Rhinecliff Bridge, signaling an all-too-soon return to the field.
Its shadow, a ground reflected silhouette, jumped through the farm geometries below like a boundless spirit and certainly bore the imprint of Cole.
Riding the invisible air currents, the biplane initiated a series of sharp s-turns, its wings swaying and protesting with each maneuver and its airspeed fluctuations registering as audible wind intensities.
Passing perpendicularly over the green swatch that was Old Rhinebeck’s barnstorming airfield at 500 feet, the D-25 arched around in a descending left turn in a power-reduced, gravity-pulling approach, virtually diving toward the tree clusters obstructing its south end.
Passing over the hill, it arrested its descent rate at some 100 feet above the ground, flaring and abruptly snatching the gravel path traversing the field with its two wheels and allowing the resistance of its grass to drain it of its momentum.
Swinging around to the left with a burst of power, it taxied back to the Biplane Rides Booth beneath the intense noon blue.
Releasing the buckle of the seatbelt I had shared with the man I never knew, but with whom I had exchanged occasional, kindred-spirit glances in the air, I climbed out of the cockpit of the still-spurting biplane and down the wing root to the ground-and back into 2017.
Autumn at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome
When the ruby, auburn, gold, orange, and yellow tree bursts rise from the ground at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, something assuredly will fall from the sky on the October weekend its dubs its “pumpkin bombing and fall festival” event, which signaled the beginning of autumn and the end to its 2013 season.
As the crowd claimed the bench-type seats at the start of its “History of Flight” air show, the brown and gold blankets of leaves beneath them emitted the sweet scent of seasonal decay.
With a ritual wave of the black and white checkered flag from the umbrella-topped “control tower,” Al Loncton, the day’s announcer, marked that show’s beginning.
The clouds, like wrappings on a package, peeled back, revealing the still-warm day’s gentle-blue contents, toward which the first aerial player, as confirmed by the throaty gulp of its Anzani engine, would strive.
Whipped by its propeller wash, pilot Herb Gregory centered the Bleriot XI’s rudder, while Mike DiGiacomio and Steven Lopresti dug into the turf with their heels, clinging to its rear fuselage to restrain it from taxiing.
Despite its early serial number (56) and old centenarian-plus-four age (104 for the math-challenged), this mostly original, second-oldest still-flying English Channel hopper still had enough fight in it to win-and it did, rolling past the audience while releasing a belch or two.
A brief hop, now from the north, was followed by a virtually vertical descent on to the grass-cushioning field, proving that the old bird could still fly.
Of equal vintage (give or take a year or two), the Curtiss Model D walked, like a model strutting its yellow frock, down the runway (at least the wing-walkers engaged in the legged action) and turned to the spectators to demonstrate its unconventional flight surface actuation methods. Of course, at this point in aviation history (1911) standards had yet to be established.
And, if the manicured field could have been considered the surface of the sea, it could have supported the floating Hanriot, with its mahogany, racing skiff-resembling hull/fuselage, the third in the aerodrome’s pioneer parade.
Long airborne before the airplane, the pilot’s scarf waved behind him, bathed by the propeller’s slipstream, which subsequently provided the necessary lift to its monowings to enable it to mimic the preceding Bleriot’s brief aerial arc, its throttle-replacing blip switch feeding or starving its engine of fuel. Equally devoid of brakes, it used the field’s south hill as an innovative substitute.
If the Andes Mountains, instead of that hill, had loomed before the Caudron G.3’s rotary engine, which currently coughed to life, it would have carried the aircraft over them, as Caudron test pilot Adrienne Bolland successfully demonstrated in 1921.
Responding to its own incessant blips, the twin-tailed biplane taxied, turned, and tried, but a five-foot altitude was all the Andes it would traverse today, leaving the air saturated with the smell of burnt castor oil in its wake.
The day gave way to a duo-of World War I trainers, that is-the de Havilland DH.82A Tiger Moth flown by Dave Fox and the Fleet 16B piloted by Old Rhinebeck Air Show President Jose Millares.
The former served the Royal Air Force in England, while the latter performed the mirror-image function across the Atlantic for the RCAF in Canada as the Finch. Based on the Feet 10, the tandem-seat biplane evolved after military design input and was employed in the British Commonwealth Air Training Program.
Lavatories would be installed in later-generation aircraft, but pilots of the current two apparently relied for comfort on the aerial kind, releasing rolls of toilet paper toward which they dove in order to cut them with their engines. (It could only be wondered what else they released.)
Pilots passed from trainers such as these to the fighters in which they had hoped to attain victory for their respective countries, as two now passed into World War I skies: the Fokker D.VII and, following its tail, the Spad VII, their guttural engines determinedly propelling them aloft.
Sporting its almost razor-edged fuselage and square wings interconnected by slender, minimal-drag bracing struts, the former offered the epitome of German performance, climbing to 10,000 feet in less than ten minutes. Although it appeared in its greatest quantities in 1918, it did so too late, the sheer number of advanced Allied types proving too formidable for it to overcome.
One of those demonstrated its maneuverability now. Powered by an Hispano-Suiza engine and flown by almost all of the allies, the Spad VII, with its synchronized Vickers machine gun, was the most famous of the French fighters and, along with the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a and Sopwith Camel, delivered the decisive blow to the Germans over their ever-retreating front.
Releasing smoke trails behind it as it looped through the sky, the D.VII virtually hung on its engine, but the Spad, close on its tail, seemed determined to bring it down-at least it would have almost a century ago during the Great War.
Deviating from its pre- and post-show passenger flights, Old Rhinebeck’s New Standard D-25-standardly accommodating four in its forward cockpit and considered the aerodrome’s “airliner”-arced skyward after the fighter pair had realighted with half the complement of people, although today, during the Halloween month of October, they appeared less-than-human. A goulish, glowing orange face and skeletal head peered at the audience, as the black fuselaged behemoth climbed over the field’s north end.
As the sun ripped the morning-long cloud quilt apart, orange bombs-generically known as “pumpkins” and “jack-o-lanterns”-cascaded through the cracks, as if dropped from a Vickers Vimy bomber over the Western Front, toward the green, gently slopping field. Bombarded with each pass, this no-man’s land absorbed each one’s silent explosion, which released an ooze of intestinal flesh.
Approaching the field’s south side, the New Standard sideslipped and briefly bounced on its left wheel before settling and disgorging the bomb-dropping gourds. Unmasked, they returned from Halloween skies as Carol Harklerod and Patrick Walker.
World War I yielded to the Golden Age of flight and Old Rhinebeck, ever an aerially historic reflection, did not let its mirror down today, as a trio from that era entered the stage.
If it had not been for the sound wresting for dominance with Al Loncton’s loud speaker-broadcast commentary, the first of them, the Curtiss CW-1 Junior, could have been mistaken for a glider, since it was developed from one.
And if the day’s spectators were in need of a bath after their dousing of castor oil, the fuselage of the second of them could have easily passed as a tub.
Stubby and tubby, it belonged to the Aeronautical Corporation of America’s Aeronca C-3, a high-wing tail dragger powered by a horizontally opposed, two-cylinder, 36-hp E.113 piston engine, built during the 1930s as a light airplane intended for personal and flight instruction use. With an empty weight of little more than 550 pounds, it itself sported a glider reminiscent look.
The third out of the starting gate was the quintessential private aircraft and trainer, the Piper J-3 Cub. Based upon the Taylor E-2, the high-wing, tandem-seat type, sporting nakedly uncowled cylinder heads, was as bare bones as it came.
Mainstay of World War II’s Civilian Pilot Training Program, it was built in several military versions, which varied little from the private ones, but whose performance, as expressed by one of its designations-“L-4 Grasshopper”-was accurately demonstrated today as Old Rhinebeck’s example virtually hopped off the grass in a near-vertical orientation. With such short take off and landing (STOL) capability, it was ideal for the medical evacuation role it played during the war, dropping in on any postage stamp sized field.
More like an airplane he wore than flew, the Piper Cub served as Stan Segalla’s partner in his Flying Farmer act at Old Rhinebeck for years.
It was an icon of general aviation, spit out of the factory in numbers exceeding 19,000.
Passing overhead as if the plug had been pulled on velocity, the trio, a virtual poster for Golden Age aviation, seemed suspended above the field. Indeed, the ribbon dropped form one of them-and intended as a target to be competitively cut-floated faster than the sputtering, winged opponents vying for it.
Landing and taxiing past the spectator-filled benches, the orange CW-1, gold C-3, and yellow J-3 reflected the autumn-colored trees lining the aerodrome, as the descending leaves, like those of the vintage airplanes, touched down for one of the season’s last landings.