Old Rhinebeck, New York
TheSopwith Camel rolls out onto the grass near the flight line. There is quite a crew on hand for such a diminutive airplane: one man on the right wing, one on the left wing, one on the prop, and one in the cockpit. When the man on the prop swings the huge eight-foot blade, I’m astounded to see all seven cylinders spin right along with the prop, the entire engine rotating in a lazy carousel of motion.
Last century’s flight line
By Greg Illes. Aerial photos by George A. Kounis.
Before I can fully grasp what I am seeing, the engine fires in an explosion of sound—part chain saw, part dirt bike, and part radial engine. The exhaust note rips up the scale and then, startlingly, goes absolutely dead. Then raucously alive, then dead again, in an on-off series of penetrating repetitions. The men struggle to control the 180-horsepower thrust, and help the pilot guide the aircraft onto the turf airfield for takeoff.
This unique scene and the ensuing flight of an authentic World War I-era biplane are but a few of the spectacles every weekend at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Dutchess County, N.Y. This is as close to an authentic World War I airfield as you can get. True to that era, the airstrip is an uneven patch of grass atop a hill set among patchy forest. Old hangars, vintage automobiles, and antique aircraft contribute to the illusion that it really is the barnstorming days.
Although old airplanes aren’t really my thing, I found the flying circus at Old Rhinebeck caught and held my interest, as it does for nearly everyone, young and old. The technologies and designs are fascinating, and the antique aircraft evoke the essence of man’s achievement of flight. The privilege of watching them actually fly makes a profound connection to all who visit this shrine to the roots of aviation. Above all, the flying circus is just plain fun.
As long as you avoid the complex New York City airspace to the south, traveling to Old Rhinebeck is relatively straightforward. It is in the low-lying Hudson River Valley in eastern New York state, about 40 miles south of Albany and 60 miles north of Manhattan, just a few miles east of the Hudson River.
Landing at Old Rhinebeck is a different issue, and you may want to consider nearby Red Hook’s Skypark as a less demanding alternate. If the 2,600 feet of sometimes-loose asphalt at Skypark still troubles you, then Dutchess County, 21 nautical miles south, or Albany, 47 nm north, are both jet-class airports with rental cars. The drive or train ride to Old Rhinebeck can be a pleasant trip in itself.
If you choose to brave the private turf strip carved out of the forest at Old Rhinebeck, call in advance for runway conditions and landing permission. The runways are listed simply as North and South (actual orientation is about 2/20), the windsock is midfield, and patterns are to the left. Be aware that the field closes Saturday and Sunday afternoons for the airshow, so land on weekdays or by noon on weekends. Also, keep a watchful eye and do not count on position announcements, since most of the aircraft at Rhinebeck do not have radios.
At 2,200 feet long, Old Rhinebeck’s airstrip is reasonably short, but it seems even shorter because of several major features. From the north, there is a long hump in the runway that is intimidating to an early flare; you feel as if you are flying straight at the ground. Consequently, pilots tend to land past the first third of the runway, flaring past the hump. From the south, a slightly raised roadway crosses the field and provides a similar limitation; you really want to touch down just after the road. For takeoffs, both directions provide some degree of uphill roll, and low-powered aircraft need to be flown by pilots experienced in short field operations. And then there are the trees. Between 100 and 200 feet high, dense forest surrounds the airfield, so there is just no such thing as a “flat approach.” You must be proficient with low airspeeds and minimum float to land here. As was the case with most airfields in World War I, the field is not lighted.
All that said, landing at Old Rhinebeck makes the visit somehow more special. If your short-field skills are up to par, by all means land here, taxi across the grass, and park by the fuel tank and hangars at the southeast corner of the field.
By the way, the big brown fuel tank is strictly for Aerodrome aircraft, and no fuel is generally available. You might be able to score some mogas if you make special arrangements, but don’t count on it.
The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome developed out of the love of aviation of a Hudson Valley native, Cole Palen. After serving in World War II, he entered the Roosevelt Aviation School on Long Island to become an aircraft mechanic. In 1951, Roosevelt Field closed and the resident aircraft were sold at auction. Palen’s passion for early aircraft prompted him to purchase six vintage aircraft, with nowhere to keep them. After years of being stored in abandoned chicken coops on the family farm, some of the aircraft were rented for the production of the 1958 film Lafayette Escadrille. In 1959, Palen used the funds he earned from the aircraft rentals to purchase a small farm for back taxes, and the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome was born.
Palen’s collection quickly expanded beyond the Roosevelt Field airplanes. He focused on vintage aircraft from the dawn of aviation up to around World War II. When he couldn’t find aircraft to buy, he made painstakingly accurate replicas. He held his first airshow in 1960 to a crowd of 25 people. As the popularity of his airshows grew, Palen decided to change the one-per-summer-month format, opting to host shows on weekends between mid-June and mid-October. With Palen’s passion for authentically restored flying machines, airshows were always a combination of display and flying airplanes, with plenty of homespun entertainment thrown in—a format that is maintained to this day.
What to do
The popularity of Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is worldwide. On one weekend, I met visitors from seven countries and at least as many states. Its renown is well deserved. With a current collection of close to 70 flying and display aircraft, 40 functional or display ground vehicles, and 50 aircraft engines from across the decades, there is more to do and see at Old Rhinebeck than a day can provide, so plan for a weekend.
The highlight is the airshow, where you will have an opportunity to see aircraft of all shapes and sizes strut their stuff. The Saturday show spans the History of Flight from pioneering days through Lindbergh’s time. You will watch a 1909 Bleriot—the oldest flying airplane in the U.S. and the second oldest in the world—fly along the field 10 feet high and land again, without making any turns. Watch the pilot, and you will see the utmost in concentration and control manipulation, even for such a simple flight. Remembering that training accidents killed more pilots than actual combat in World War I, it is miraculous that these marginally stable aircraft are flown 26 weekends a year with no accidents.
The Sunday show focuses on barnstorming and World War I aircraft. There is even a dogfight, with the more capable Camels and Albatrosses performing casual aerobatics and flybys. Try not to get a crick in your neck while watching the toilet-paper cutting contest, where the old warbirds attempt to cut a falling tissue roll as many times as possible before getting too close to the ground.
In the spirit of the barnstormer/vaudeville heritage of the era, Old Rhinebeck is also about pure spectator entertainment. For years, the star of the Sunday show was Stan Segalla, the Flying Farmer, in his Piper PA-11. He would “accidentally” take off in a Cub, perform aerobatics, and safely land. Since his retirement in 2009, other colorful characters such as Trudy Truelove, the Evil Baron of Rhinebeck, and Sir Percy Goodfellow perform in an aviation melodrama.
The fanfare prompts many visitors to show up in period clothing just for fun. It’s not uncommon to see a 1920s-clad couple strolling the flight line to inspect the brightly colored aircraft. Be sure to arrive for the airshow a little early, as it is preceded by a fashion parade exhibiting period clothing, and the models are frequently chosen from the visitors. A procession of old cars and ambulances, police vehicles, and other antiques operated under their own power follows. There is such an intense difference between the sterility of a museum exhibition, and the live, pulsing blat of a 90-year-old car or aircraft zipping past the grandstands. It simply must be seen and experienced to be fully understood.
If the airshow awakens in you the desire to experience a bit of history firsthand, take a biplane ride in the 1929 New Standard. This is not your typical Stearman-over-the-fairgrounds ride, because the New Standard is a breed apart. The model was developed back in barnstorming days especially to give folks an airplane ride when such things were new and unusual. The unique five-seater has two small bench seats for four passengers behind the solo pilot seat. Sightseers are rewarded with breezy views of the Hudson River Valley and the maze of struts and wires holding the aircraft together. The 15-minute ride evokes the era of the first aviators, with leather caps for the passengers and period-dressed attendants to help you in and out of the airplane. The tour ends with a swooping, between-the-trees, feather-soft touchdown on the grass right in front of the crowd gathering for the afternoon airshow; flights Sat. and Sun. 10 a.m. to dusk, $75 per person.
For the mechanically inclined, the museum is a big draw. Its four hangars house everything from running rotary engines to an in-progress authentic replica of the Spirit of St. Louis. The design and construction of the displays and flying aircraft are nothing short of amazing. We take much for granted with our Lycoming/Continental-powered metal aircraft that carry us so reliably aloft. The aircraft here flew in the days when simply getting up into the air was a major accomplishment.
You may find the unbelievably unorthodox design of the rotary engines powering these aircraft interesting. Unlike modern engines, where the crankshaft is bolted to the propeller, the rotary engine uses a crankshaft bolted to the airframe. The entire engine—cylinders, pistons, and connecting rods—is connected to the propeller and revolves around the crankshaft. Although this design offered superior cooling as the cylinders spun at propeller speed, it had significant drawbacks. One of them was a gyroscopic component so severe that the airplanes could barely be turned to the left at low airspeeds. Another is that the whole bizarre affair was lubricated by castor oil mixed with the incoming fuel stream. Because this was the only lubrication source, the fuel stream could not be limited, as is done with a normal carburetor and throttle. Instead, power was controlled simply by not firing the cylinders. The pilot controlled the propeller thrust by activating either a total cutout or an interrupter switch. This explains the surging and cutting of the engine you hear when the airplanes fly by. A good way to appreciate this odd design is to check out the rotary engine model on the outside wall of the flight line gift shop. As you rotate the simple pieces of wood through a few revolutions, the ingenuity—or perhaps eccentricity—of the inventors really sinks in. Later on, test your understanding by trying to explain to someone how the pistons rotate around a fixed crankshaft.
On weekends, you can peruse the museum hangars, but many of the “displays” will be flying in the airshows. The museum is open daily June 4 through Oct. 16, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Airshows take place Saturday and Sunday, June 11 through Oct. 16, show starts at 2 p.m., weather permitting; adults $20, seniors $15, children 6 to 10 and scouts in uniform $5, 845/752-3200.
Where to stay
The Stone Church Road Inn is a quiet and comfortable bed and breakfast just a short walk from the Aerodrome. We loved the winding path that climbs through lovely woods from the visitor’s aircraft parking area at the south end of the airfield right up to the inn. If you don’t fancy the walk, your hosts Richard and Marsha DeBlasi will be glad to pick you up. Breakfast comes made to order; your choices include eggs, pancakes, home fries, and homemade muffins. There are only four rooms, so book in advance, $95 to $125, 339 Stone Church Rd., 845/758-2427.
Located three miles outside of the village, the Olde Rhinebeck Inn is a historic bed and breakfast dating back to before the Revolutionary War. Currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this four-bedroom inn sits on an idyllic three-acre lot off a country road and has been ranked among the nation’s 10 best by Forbes.com. All rooms feature a queen-size bed and private bath, and breakfast includes homemade baked goods and fresh fruits, along with house favorites like baked French custardy pear pancake or sweet potato frittata, $195 to $275, 340 Wurtemburg Rd., 845/871-1745.
If you booked too late, or simply want to see more of Dutchess County, there are many lodging choices in this popular area. One appealing choice is the affordable, pet-friendly Rhinebeck Motel. This small, eight-room lodge can’t pick you up at the airport, but the three-mile cab ride won’t set you back much; rooms $111, 6938 Highway 9, 845/876-5900.
Where to eat
Snacks, sandwiches, and burgers are available midfield at the Aerodrome, south of the entrance. Excellent ice cream is just 50 yards to the north, and I couldn’t find a flavor I didn’t like.
Away from the Aerodrome, you’ll need a car or taxi. Eateries are found around the sprawling countryside, no more than a few miles apart. One of the most popular haunts is Foster’s Coach House Tavern in Rhinebeck. Foster’s prides itself on fine food and drink, and the lunch menu ranges from the unique clam-dog for $8 to a London broil sandwich for $9, with a wide selection of sandwiches and sides in the same price range. For dinner, steaks, chops, fish, and poultry are on the bill of fare. The 20 separate entrée selections or a combination creation of your own are $14 to $21, Tue. through Sun. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Fri. and Sat. until midnight, 6411 Montgomery St., 845/876-8052.
Another local favorite is just down the street, in a restored First Baptist Church that dates back to 1825. The Terrapin Red Bar & Bistro is a modern restaurant with Asian and Mexican elements that has been pleasing locals since 2003. Appetizers include fontina cheese and red onion quesadillas with fire-roasted tomato and green chile salsa, and golden nugget squash soup with coconut milk and lemongrass. Entrées are just as enticing, with delectable options like Hudson Valley Farmer’s Pasta, combining gemelli with grilled corn, spaghetti squash, kale, sweet onions, and garlic with Chatham sauce, and Star Ranch natural beef braise short rib gratinée, slow-cooked in beef and onion broth and served over Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and topped with caramelized onions and melted gruyere crostini, $23 for two courses and $28 for three. The bistro provides patrons with a trendier, more relaxed environment, while those looking for a more formal, sit-down feel can try the dining room. Bar/bistro open Sun. through Thu. 11:30 a.m. to 12 a.m., Fri. and Sat. 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m., dining room Sun. through Thu. 5 to 9 p.m., Fri. and Sat. until 10 p.m., 6426 Montgomery St., 845/876-3330.
The main attraction at Old Rhinebeck is the Aerodrome itself. There is no courtesy car, and the nearest town, Rhinebeck, is about three miles away by hilly roads. Bicycles are one possibility, or you might be able to hitch a ride from one of the many airshow visitors. If you plan to explore Dutchess County, a car is essential. In that case, you would be better served by flying to Kingston Airport, 4.6 nm west, with an FBO and nearby Enterprise Rent-A-Car, or Poughkeepsie Dutchess County, 21 nm south, with full services and several car rental firms. Otherwise, a taxi to dinner might be all you need for a weekend stay.
Taxis can be summoned from Rhinebeck Taxi that offers a special $25 rate from Kingston-Ulster Airport to the Aerodrome, 845/876-2010, or Redhook Taxi, 845/758-1478. Enterprise offers rental cars starting at $43 per day; drop-off/pickup available on weekdays, 845/336-4700 or 800/736-8222.
In an area steeped in history, a visit to Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome provides a full immersion in aviation at its dawning. Roam the grounds among folks in 1920s dress, touch the inventions of geniuses born before your great-grandfather, and marvel at the ingenuity of men and women who lived their lives long before television and cell phones. Color, nostalgia, and noise mix with the aroma of castor oil and low-octane gasoline, and the creations of nearly 100 years past capture your imagination and invoke images of people and events from an era long gone. The sights, sounds, and smells of the first flying machines are an unparalleled experience, never to be forgotten.
From the archives of Pilot Getaways magazine. Details such as frequencies and prices have been recently updated to reflect current information.