1910 Hanriot flies by the stage-set village.
1910 Hanriot flies by the stage-set village.

Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome

Field review by the editors.

Red Hook, New York

Every weekend afternoon in the summer and early fall, World War I biplanes fly and fight over Rhinebeck, New York. They're the time-warp legacy of James Henry "Cole" Palen Jr, a mechanic who loved old airplanes, had the skills to keep them flying, and wanted a place for them to play. Since it didn't exist, he built it himself.

Cole Palen as the Black Baron of Rhinebeck.
Cole Palen as the Black Baron of Rhinebeck.

Cole (1925-1993) was the founder of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome -- America's first flying museum -- and an obsessed visionary. "He may have been the most unusual person I ever met," said Mike Fisher, who's been associated with the Aerodrome ever since it opened on an abandoned Hudson Valley farm in 1960.

"He ate peanut butter and oatmeal when times were bad. He dug the rocks out of the airfield with his bare hands."

Black Baron's 1917 Fokker triplane.
Black Baron's 1917 Fokker triplane.

One famous story about Cole was that when he met his future wife, she found him building a full-size Fokker triplane in his living room.

Cole had an instinct for showmanship and the charm to infect others with his mad dream. He also understood that for the Aerodrome to attract visitors, it couldn't just show old airplanes flying around. So Cole concocted a way to have fun with the planes he loved, a campy World War I melodrama featuring costume-clad characters with names such as Trudy Truelove and Sir Percy Goodfellow.

Dogfight!
Dogfight!

While an audience sat on outdoor benches along the airstrip, looping and sputtering biplanes would spar in dogfights, bomb a stage-set town -- one highlight was the explosion of "Fifi's," a lingerie shop, sending brassieres and garter belts flying -- while actors swooned to the breathless encouragement of an announcer in a tower. At one point Trudy would be plane-napped, swept into the air (and cleverly switched with a rag doll dummy), then fall dramatically from the sky as Sir Percy waited below. Sometimes he even managed to catch her.

The role of the lead villain, the scurrilous Black Baron of Rhinebeck, was of course reserved for Cole and his triplane. In the late-season October shows, he was bombed from the air with pumpkins.

Hanriot sheltered in its hangar at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome.
Hanriot sheltered in its hangar at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome.

Cole Palen has been flying with angel wings for over a quarter-century, yet his passing did not crash his Aerodrome. The planes, some now well over 100 years old, are still featured in the airshows, with new actors assuming the roles, and hijinks virtually unaltered since the late 1960s. "Yes, we still blow up the lingerie shop," said Mike, who said that returning visitors often express delight that the show has maintained its hammy traditions. "They'll say, 'We're so glad that you didn't change it. Please don't change it!'"

Front row seats on the airfield.
Front row seats on the airfield.

While Sundays are reserved for the melodrama, Saturdays feature a less zany History of Flight show, including a briefly airborne 1909 Bleriot XI, which Mike said is "the oldest flying airplane in the western Hemisphere." A museum on the grounds displays many of the Aerodrome's 60+ airplanes, as well as Cole's considerable collection of early aviation artifacts.

Before and after each airshow, visitors can hop into a 1929 open-cockpit biplane and take a windswept ride out over the countryside and Hudson River.

"Most people are familiar with flying nowadays," said Mike. "You get out of a car, walk thru a tube, sit in a tube, walk thru a tube, then get in another car. There's not a lot of magic in that." The Aerodrome, he said, helps people appreciate flying by reacquainting them with the joy of open-air aviation. The rural setting, a happy accident of cheap real estate and Cole's need for an airfield, showcases the vintage aircraft the way that they really were flown back in their heyday.

"We want to teach people about airplanes and make them happy, and most of the time that happens," said Mike. The Aerodrome's continued success, he said, heartens those inspired by Cole Palen, now entering their third generation.

"Will we still be doing this a hundred years from now? Will the Black Baron still be bombed with pumpkins? It wouldn't surprise me."

Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome

Address:
9 Norton Rd, Red Hook, NY
Directions:
From Rhinebeck drive north on US Hwy 9/Albany Post Rd for three miles. Turn right onto Stone Church Rd. Drive 1.5 miles. Turn left onto Norton Rd.
Hours:
Museum daily 10-5 May-Oct. Airshows Sa-Su June-Oct. (Call to verify)
Phone:
845-752-3200
Admission:
Museum $12. Airshow $25. Biplane ride $100.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
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November 17, 2018

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