Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, some 60 miles up the picturesque Hudson Valley from New York City, is in a setting that Rip van Winkle would have recognized. Indeed, you might think you’re having a somewhat updated Rip van Winkle experience of your own if you’re there on a weekend, for at such times World War I comes to life in the Catskills.
While World War I and a collection of airplanes relating to it form the core of Old Rhinebeck’s entertainment, there’s far more to the place than that, including 54 antique aircraft engines, 38 very rare cars, trucks and motorcycles, and a recently-restored 1918 Renault “light” tank (which actually weighs 6.5 tons).
James Henry “Cole” Palen, who died in 1993 at a youthful 68, was Old Rhinebeck’s founder and first curator. He was “a particularly individual pilot and collector, a great character and a natural showman,” according to his successor, Barry Dowsett. Having developed a childhood fascination for aviation, Palen’s first flight was a short hop in a New Standard biplane at the old Poughkeepsie Airport, when he was 10, Dowsett said.
Following his discharge from the Army at the end of World War II, Palen entered the Roosevelt Aviation School at Roosevelt Field, Long Island, to train as a mechanic. One of the hangars held a small museum of World War I aircraft. When Roosevelt Field closed in 1951, the little museum’s airplanes were put up for sale. The Smithsonian acquired three and Palen bid his life savings for the rest, becoming the proud owner of a SPAD XIII, an Avro 504K, a Curtiss Jenny, a Standard J-l, an Aeromarine 39B and a Sopwith Snipe. After nine 200-mile round trips under tow, they were resettled at the Palen family farm, stored in abandoned chicken coops. In 1959, Palen bought a farm of his own near Rhinebeck. He cleared a runway, built hangars from scrapped materials, and the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome was up and running. From then until his death, Palen collected historic aircraft, restoring and flying them regularly. Where originals didn’t exist he built and bought accurate replicas powered by authentic engines. Numerous veteran and vintage cars and trucks joined the collection over the years, nearly all in working order.
The first air show was in 1960, for an audience of about 25 people. Word spread and shows were scheduled regularly on the last Sunday of each summer month. With increasing popularity, that was changed to the current show schedule, every Saturday and Sunday from mid-June through mid-October.
From those early shows, Rhinebeck was to become famous for flying historic aircraft in their natural environment while providing great family entertainment, including a zany melodrama featuring the daring Sir Percy Goodfellow doing battle with the Evil Black Baron for the hand of the lovely Trudy Truelove. The World War I dogfights bring swooping, roaring fighters across the field at low level, machine guns rattling, smoke pouring convincingly from “hit” losers. Other airplanes of other eras strut their stuff, as well, making a day at Old Rhinebeck one of pure delight for anyone fascinated by the early years of aviation.
After Palen suffered a stroke in 1993, he formed the Rhinebeck Aerodrome Museum Foundation, creating a board of directors to govern it. Before the year was out, Palen had died, but his foresight in setting up the foundation has kept the museum and the shows – his dreams – alive, Dowsett said.
Today, the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is a truly living museum of antique aviation, holding one of the largest collections anywhere of aeroplanes, automobiles, motorcycles, early engines and memorabilia from between 1900 and 1935. Aside from the air shows are four museum buildings filled with aircraft from the Pioneer Era, World War I and the Lindbergh/Barnstorming era, considered the golden years of aviation.
NEED TO KNOW
Old Rhinebeck air shows take place every Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., June 16 (Fathers Day) through Oct. 14 this year. The museum and grounds open for the 2007 season May 12 and close Oct. 31.
The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is located near historic Rhinebeck, N.Y., reached by car using the Taconic State Parkway or the New York State Thruway. Picnic and parking facilities are free.
While visiting aircraft may not land at Old Rhinebeck itself, nearby Sky Park Airport (46N) at Red Hook offers a 2,664 x 30 foot paved runway. There are parking fees during Old Rhinebeck air shows. Dutchess County Airport (POU) at Poughkeepsie, about 25 miles south of Old Rhinebeck, has a 3,000-foot paved runway along with rental cars and other amenities. It also charges tiedown fees.
For information: OldRhinebeck.org or 845-752-3200.