Pilgrimage to Old Rhinebeck

‘Rat-tat-tat-brrrrrrrmmm, rat-tat-tat-brrrrrrrmmm!’ I could scarcely believe my ears, for there, dogfighting over my head, were World War I fighters – SPAD, Fokker Triplane, Camel, Albatross, and Nieuport – marques I had read and dreamt about, and even seen in a few museums. But never had I guessed that one day I’d actually hear them fly.

Most aviators would agree that Oshkosh is the Mecca of the skies, to which true believers must eventually trek by slow airplane and camp under a wing, there to be drenched by a cacophony of aircraft engines, a downburst of sweat, and perhaps some rain.

But if Oshkosh is Mecca, Rhinebeck Aerodrome is Medina, so when I was drawn to Oshkosh after fifteen years away, thirteen hundred additional miles seemed like nothing to visit Rhinebeck and make my pilgrimage complete.

Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is an etherial grass strip carved from dense woods along New York’s Hudson River, where World War I aeroplanes still fly. Ever since succumbing to Sir Walter Raleigh’s 1922 classic, The War in the Air, I’ve been captivated by early aeroplanes and the men and women who flew them. Structurally limited, powered by primitive engines, and barely able to lift their own weight, these planes duked it out over Europe only a dozen years after the dawn of powered flight.

Rhinebeck’s oldest flying aircraft is an original 1909 Blériot, like the one its designer flew across the English Channel that same year to global acclaim; Blériot was the Lindbergh of his day after conquering twenty-six miles of unbroken water.

But it was the World War I aircraft that especially drew me to Rhinebeck. Some are original and others faithful reproductions, but all are true to their heritage. I sought in particular the mystical sound of rotary engines that powered so many of them, primitive devices with radially-mounted cylinders that spun with their propellers around fixed crankshafts bolted to the airframe. That’s right – the whole engine turned, improving cooling at the slow airspeeds of the day and saving weight through mechanical simplicity, but aggravating handling due to gyroscopic effects.

Rotary engines had no carburetors – fuel was distributed by centrifugal force to the cylinders – and therefore they had no throttles. The engines ran wide open all the time, so to reduce power pilots pressed a kill switch suspending ignition to the spark plugs. ‘Brrrp…, brrrp…,’ was the music on final as pilots blipped engines on and off for landing.

The difference between maximum structural speed and stall speed was as little as ten miles per hour on early aircraft, with death lurking at either margin. Stalls and spins were considered unrecoverable in the early days, while structural failures were common at higher airspeeds still far below cruise of a modern Cessna 172.

Rotary engines were lubricated with castor oil, centrifugally distributed with the fuel. Without return lines, used lubricant streamed back over both fuselage and pilot. That’s one reason early aviators wore scarves – to wipe castor oil from their faces in futile attempts to stave off its effects on the bowels and stomach.

Perhaps most incredible of all, pilots at the height of the war in 1916 received as little as eight hours of training in difficult and unstable aircraft – no wonder their lives were measured in only weeks upon arriving at the front.

Imagine doing battle aloft after just a few hours of training, in an aircraft having only a ten mile-per-hour speed range, questionable structural integrity, and an unreliable engine that hampers turns in one direction and makes you sick – then surely you’ll understand why I had to see such aeroplanes fly.

Finally the long-anticipated day arrived. We shoehorned our Flying Carpet between tall trees and the Hudson River bridge at Kingston-Ulster Airport, then journeyed by taxi at inflated fares over the bridge… to Rhinebeck Aerodrome!

We toured primitive hangars filled with ancient aeroplanes while a 1929 New Standard biplane delivered open-cockpit rides to the faithful, then watched two Rhinebeck ‘pioneers’ take flight: a birdlike 1910 Hanriot reproduction, and a marvelously crude 1914 French Caudron.

But the main course was Rhinebeck’s famed Sunday show, conceived by the Aerodrome’s late founder, Cole Palen. Complete with good guy, villainous Black Baron, and kidnapped heroine, it’s a silent movie melodrama perverted with enough noise to keep everyone holding their ears throughout the show. Ancient autos scrambled, early aeroplanes battled an original World War I Renault tank, dogfights took place, bombs ‘fell,’ bad jokes by the announcer proliferated, and all was encompassed by an outrageous story line that could hardly have fooled even the most gullible spectator. Add some clever tricks pulled on the audience (I won’t ruin the surprises), hot dogs and a sunburn for full effect, and we were altogether transported back to our distant origins as pilots.

Rhinebeck Aerodrome is crude, hammy, and yet a wonderful diamond in the rough – every enthusiast having the slightest tinge of aviation romance should visit this rare place where World War I aeroplanes still fly. Some day it will end and missing it would be a sin for any real aviator, like pilgrims missing Mecca or Medina.

As we overflew the bridge outbound that afternoon, the smooth rumble of our Flying Carpet was displaced in my ears by uneven music from ancient aeroplanes. Peering over my shoulder to foil attack by the Black Baron, I was suddenly overtaken by words from Walter Raleigh.

‘The engine is the heart of an aeroplane,’ he wrote in 1922, ‘but the pilot is its soul.’

I then looked down upon the beautiful Hudson River, and realized that eighty years of progress haven’t dulled the miracle of flight one bit. (For video clips, additional photos, and to schedule your own visit to Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, see www.oldrhinebeck.org.)