Sunday, July 23, 2017

Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome Part 1: A Flight Line of Magnificent Flying Machines--July 23, 2017

Decades ago, as a flying-obsessed child, I clipped out a colour article from the Toronto Star Magazine about Colen Palen's Flying Circus, that had come to Ontario to put on a flying exhibition of World War 1 aircraft.  Mr. Palen had been inspired after seeing the old airplanes fly at the Shuttleworth Collection in England and when he had the opportunity to purchase a number of old aircraft and parts from storage in hangar in Long Island, New York, he did so.  These six aircraft, bought in 1951, were just the start of things at what became the first flying vintage aircraft museum in North America.  In 1958 he and his wife Rita purchased some acreage near the Hudson River, opposite Kingston, New York, and in 1966 the first flying demonstrations at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome took place.  Mr. Palen died in 1993 and his wife in 2002 but during the season, which runs from May until October, you can visit the museum and hangars and admire the impressive airplane collection or, even better, see them in action every weekend beginning in June.  The focus is on airplanes from 1900 to 1940.  15-20 of the aircraft in the 60-strong collection are airworthy.  The Saturday airshow is "The History of Flight," while Sunday's offering is a World War I dogfight spectacular and this is what we had come to see.  And while I visited the Shuttleworth Collection and saw a terrific flying demonstration in 1974, I had never had the opportunity before to visit Old Rhinebeck, which is so much closer.

The location is quite rural and after parking the Corvette in the spacious lot, we walked through the airfield gate and paid our admission.  There is a long and undulating grass runway and a series of  vintage-style hangars, along with some bleachers for watching events. The grounds include not only the actual flying area but also a museum and a series of additional hangars where aircraft not in currently airworthy are stored.  The whole place is kind of rickety but that surely is part of its considerable charm.

As the show was to begin at 2:00 pm and we were there early, we decided first to look at the airplanes on the flight line and then the museum and associated hangars.  We were fortunate that the weather was ideal although the forecast a few days earlier had warned of a risk of rain.

1911 Curtiss D Pusher (Replica)
One of the most famous of the early American aircraft, the Curtiss Pusher set many records and included such stunts as flying along the Niagara Gorge when piloted by Lincoln Beachey, who also raced daredevil driver Barney Oldfield in airplane vs. car competitions.  The example at Rhinebeck is a reproduction but, like almost all the copies here, is powered with an engine of the period, although the 90 hp Curtiss OX-5 was only introduced in 1915 and not used in a Pusher.  Nonetheless, I am sure that in flying demonstrations the extra 50 hp over the original is welcome!

1909 Bleriot XI
Famous for being the first airplane flown across the English Channel, the Bleriot XI was also one of the very first airplanes to be mass-produced.  The authentic Rheinbeck example, Serial No. 56, has been flying at the airfield since 1961 and is powered by the same kind of 35 hp three cylinder Anzani engine used in the Channel flight.  

1910 Hanriot
This exquisite machine is a reproduction of a 1910 Hanriot monoplane that was successfully raced in Europe, including at events where it was piloted by Marcel Hanriot, the company founder's 15 year old son!  Rene Hanriot had been a motorboat racer and builder, as well as a racing car driver for Darracq, and his early airplanes bear witness to wooden boatbuilding techniques.  The airplane uses two levers for control, with the left one for wing-warping and the right for elevators, while the rudder was controlled by foot pedals as is usual.  The replica uses a 50 hp Franklin engine, which would have been close to the same power output as the original Hanriot.

The Hanriot company was established in 1907 and went through numerous reorganizations until consolidated under a national industry consolidation scheme in 1936.  Hanriot was not very successful in selling its own aircraft to the French military, although it did sell 1,200 of its HD.1 biplane fighters, beginning in 1916, to Belgium and Italy.  It achieved more success as a manufacturer of other designs under license from Sopwith and Salmson.

Marcel Hanriot, the youngest pilot to be licensed in Europe, served in World War I and after being wounded during a night-flying raid in 1915, returned to the family business, a role he was to retain even after the consolidation.  He served in the French Resistance and was seriously wounded again in 1944 but lived until 1961.

1934 DeHavilland DH.82 Tiger Moth
From 1931 until 1944 no fewer than 8,868 Tiger Moths were produced.  A commercial success, it was used both for personal flying but also for initial pilot training for 25 different airforces, continuing in service in this role in the Royal Air Force until retirement in the 1950s.  It was built in numerous outposts of the British Empire, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as Sweden, Portugal and Norway.  It was the final variant in the famous "Moth" series of DeHavilland aircraft and some 250 are believed to be still airworthy today.

1929 Great Lakes 2T-1MS
Established in Cleveland in 1929, the Great Lakes Aircraft Company became famous for its classic sports biplane, the 2T Sport Trainer.  Although the company went out of business in 1936 after producing 264 aircraft, for many decades it was considered the finest American aerobatic airplane.  Originally using an 85 hp American Cirrus inline engine, over the years the existing aircraft were upgraded with more power from other inline engines, including the 125 hp Menasco Pirate (installed in the Aerodrome's 2T) and 145 hp Fairchild-Ranger.  As well, radial engines and more modern horizontally-opposed ones appeared on Great Lakes biplanes.  In 1960 a Great Lakes, flown by Frank Price, was the first American entry in the World Aerobatic Championships.

The airplane was revived in 1973 with modern Lycoming engines and built in Oklahoma until production was shifted under new owners to Georgia, with around 148 new airframes built in the two locations.  The company was sold again to a group that went bankrupt in 1983 and since then production has been dormant.

1929 New Standard D-25
Evoking the bygone era of the barnstormers, the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome offers sightseeing flights in a period airplane, a 1929 New Standard D-25.  As old Curtiss Jennys wore out or crashed, barnstormers needed a reliable and more profitable replacement.  The New Standard Aircraft Company operated in New Jersey from 1927 to 1931 and was originally the Gates-Day Aircraft Company, updating surplus Standard J1 army trainers for the civilian market before developing their own models.  The D-25, a "sesquiplane" biplane with a much larger upper wing than lower one, was capable of carrying four passengers in the front cockpit, with the pilot in the rear cockpit, thus quadrupling pleasure flight earnings for operators.  One of the co-founders of New Standard was Ivan R. Gates, whose famous Gates Flying Circus was the most notable of the organized barnstorming operations, flying up to 100,000 passengers a year and putting on thrilling shows.  45 D-25s were built and were used in a variety of roles beyond joy-riding, including mail flights and crop-dusting.

New Standard had plans for an extensive line of aircraft but the Great Depression ended those with bankruptcy in 1931 and a depressed Ivan Gates, said to be the most famous barnstormer in America, committed suicide in New York in November 1932.

1917 Curtiss JN-4H "Jenny" 
Introduced as a primary training aircraft in 1915 and used by the US Army Air Corps as well as the Royal Flying Corps, the JN-4 remained in service with the Air Corps until 1927.  It was powered initially with the 90 hp Curtiss OX-5 water-cooled V8 engine and used for a variety of unarmed purposes.  6,813 were built, including 1,260 "Canuck" variants built in Toronto.  The Jenny, as the airplane was affectionately nicknamed, became the backbone of US civil aviation when World War I ended and huge numbers became available on the surplus market, sometimes for as little as $50, and served many barnstormers, including Charles Lindbergh, well.  The first airmail was flown in a Jenny in May 1918.

The Rhinebeck example is one of 929 built under license by the Wright Aeronautical Corporation for the Army Air Corps and used a 140 hp Hispano-Suiza 8 V8 engine for greater power and reliability.  Although a good number of JN-4s remain in airworthy condition, very few originals are actually flown as this one is.

1914 Caudron G.III
First flown in late 1913, the Caudron G.III was used as a reconnaissance airplane and trainer during World War I.  As a reconnaissance machine it was very good, being stable and offering good visibility, but its poor performance with its 80 hp Le Rhone rotary and lack of armament saw it withdrawn from frontline service by mid-1916.  The early production versions used wing-warping for lateral control, eventually replaced by ailerons.  The G.III served in trainer use until well after the war in many different countries, including China, where it continued in the trainer role for a warlord airforce until 1931!   The Aerodrome reproduction uses a period-correct rotary engine.

1918 Fokker D.VII
Considered the finest fighter of World War I, the Fokker D.VII is the only airplane to be specifically mentioned in the Treaty of Versailles as the Germans were required to surrender all of their planes to the Allies.  When first test flown in competition, the airplane handled poorly and lacked directional stability.  The designer, Reinhard Platz, had an extra bay added to the fuselage length and a triangular extension added to the fin and suddenly the D.VII was the best airplane in the competition!  More than 3,300 were built, with 775 active in German service at the end of the war.  The D.VII was used by a number of other countries.  The United States received 142 examples for evaluation and re-engined them with Liberty 6 engines, replacing the similar 180 hp Mercedes D.IIIa engine.  The Rhinebeck reproduction is one of the few aircraft flying with the original type motor.  

D.VIIs sent as war prizes were in some cases preserved.  The Smithsonian Air & Space Museum has one, as does the US Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.  The only surviving one of the 22 sent to Canada is on display at a small county museum in Quebec, although another D.VII, originally sent to the US, is under restoration at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa.  The Quebec example is one of only five surviving in original condition.

1918 Fokker D.VIII
The sleek Fokker D.VIII was a parasol monoplane designed by Fokker's chief engineer Reinhold Platz and was the last Fokker fighter to go into service in World War I.  Nicknamed "the Flying Razor," 381 were built, although only 85 had entered service by the time of the Armistice.  A D.VIII has the distinction of scoring the last aerial victory of World War I.  The airplane used the best technology of the time with its unbraced cantilever wing and steel tube fuselage and was quick and easy to produce.  Some early examples suffered from wing failures due to poor workmanship rather than design.

The engine used in the original airplane was the already obsolete Oberursel UR.II rotary, which only produced 110 hp, but the D.VIII's low drag and light weight gave it excellent performance.  The superb reproduction flown at the Aerodrome uses a 160 hp Gnome rotary, a contemporary engine used in French aircraft including the Nieuport 28.  The markings of this D.VIII, using the later war period lozenge camouflage pattern, are for the Jasta 6 fighter squadron.  This squadron, formed in 1916, became part of the famous von Richthofen Flying Circus fighter wing in July 1917.  Jasta 6 received some D.VIIIs in August 1918 but had to withdraw them from service due to the lack of lubricating castor oil. 

1917 Albatros D.Va
Meant to replace the successful Albatro D.III, the D.V turned out not to be an improvement on the earlier aircraft and was modified to become the D.Va, although not all structural issues had been solved.  Around 2,500 D.Vs of both types were built but only two original airplanes exist today.  The Rhinebeck reproduction uses an original-type Mercedes D.III engine.
1916 Sopwith Pup
Officially named the Sopwith Scout, the Pup served in combat for the British from 1916 until outclassed by newer German fighters.  Nonetheless, it still saw operational use until nearly the end of 1917 on the Western Front.  Considered a forgiving airplane to fly, it was used for aircraft carrier deck landing experiments.  1,770 were built in all.

The Rhinebeck reproduction was formerly in the Fantasy of Flight collection until damaged by a hurricane.  It was purchased and rebuilt by Brian Coughlin (builder of the Fokker D.VIII and other types) and had its first public flying display at Old Rhinebeck only a month before our visit.  It is powered by a Le Rhone 80 hp rotary, as per original.

1917 Fokker Dr.I Triplane
After seeing the superiority of the Sopwith Triplane to German types in early 1917, Fokker responded with its own triplane, the smaller Dr.I, which entered service in August 1917.  One of the favourite aircraft of top-scoring ace Manfred von Richthofen.  Although slower than Allied fighters, the Dr.I was exceptionally maneuverable and had an excellent rate of climb at lower altitudes.  Fokker Triplanes have always been big attractions at the Aerodrome and numerous reproductions have been built (no originals survive).  Cole Palen himself played the role of "the Black Baron" in the weekend shows, flying a black Triplane.  The current airworthy reproduction uses a 210 hp Continental radial engine rather than an original period rotary.

In addition to the wonderful airplanes, the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome has a nice collection of antique cars and trucks, all of which are driven during the shows.

1927 Ryan NYP "Spirit of St. Louis"
A modification of a M-2 mailplane produced by Ryan Airlines of San Diego, the NYP "Spirit of St. Louis" was a unique airplane designed to fly non-stop from New York to Paris to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize.  The successful attempt in May 1927 made Charles Lindbergh perhaps the most famous pilot in history and the NYP, registration N-X-211, has been on display at the Smithsonian Institution Air & Space Museum since April 1928, after making 174 flights in all, totaling nearly 490 hours.  This replica was completed in 2015 and is powered by a correct Wright J-5 Whirlwind engine, along with period instruments including an earth induction compass, to make it the most authentic airworthy reproduction extant.  It made its public debut flight on the 89th anniversary of the Atlantic flight on May 21, 2016.

1929 Curtiss Robin J-1
An iconic airplane of the Golden Age of Flying, the Curtiss Robin was designed to be a practical and inexpensive machine for the private market.  Seating three, with two passengers behind the pilot, the Robin first flew in August 1928 using one of the easily available surplus Curtiss OX-5 90 hp engines.  The Rhinebeck example is one of 40 J-1s built, using the more powerful 165 hp Wright J-6-5 Whirlwind.

The Robin was used on several record-setting flights, including the Key Brothers' 1935 continuous flight of 653 hours, accomplished with aerial refueling.  Another pilot accomplished 200 slow rolls in succession in his Robin in 1929 but the most famous flight was Douglas Corrigan's 1938 Atlantic crossing. Denied official permission to fly from New York to Ireland as he had planned, he announced he would fly his rickety and much-modified Robin J-1 from New York to Los Angeles non-stop instead.  Departing on July 18 from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, he turned up 28 hours later in Dublin, subsequently claiming to have had "a faulty compass heading" and earning himself aviation immortality and the nickname "Wrongway Corrigan."  His pilot's license was suspended for two weeks but on his return to New York there were more spectators at his tickertape parade down Broadway than at Lindbergh's. 

Corrigan was a skilled mechanic who had been one of the workers at Ryan Airlines building "The Spirit of St. Louis" and after his moment of celebrity flew for a small California airline.  He died in 1995 and "Sunshine," his much-travelled Curtiss Robin, for which Corrigan had paid $310 after finding it in a New York cow pasture, is in storage awaiting disposition to a museum.

Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome has a lot of works-in-progress!

Go on to Part 2: The Museum here.

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