71. Old Rhinebeck – Saturday
I’ve spent the last two days in what many regard as early aviation’s Valhalla – Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome. When Cole Palen left the US Army in the 1950s, he blew his entire savings – $1500 – on half a dozen WWI aircraft that were collecting dust at a local airport. He sold one on for $1500, and put the money into making an airstrip from land he’d bought. The strip was hardly ideal – steep north-facing slopes at both ends, and surrounded by trees for several miles in every direction, but Cole persisted, and with the help of an army of volunteers he got the strip and the aircraft running, and pretty soon their weekend fun-flying started to attract an audience, and so the pattern was set.
Cole was a showman first and a pilot second. The old aircraft – many of them powered by their original engines – were flown to the limits of their capability, and pyrotechnics strapped to the aircraft and on the ground coupled with thoroughly corny storylines created a spectacle that no-one who saw it ever forgot. Inevitably with such a hard life and such unforgiving conditions the aircraft took a great deal of punishment, and some very rare aircraft were lost.
Cole and Rita Palen have both sadly died, but the enthusiasm lives on, and while the flying show is tempered these days by the need to preserve some very historic aircraft, it still draws large crowds, and the weekend after Labor Day in early September is traditionally one of the most popular.
When I arrived on the Saturday, one of the first people I bumped into was Leo Opdyke, whose Bristol Scout flew – just the once – from Old Rhinebeck in 1985. I had printed off a copy of the parts list for Leo, as he’d always said that was something he’d like to have, and he was delighted to receive it. He introduced me to Sean Tavares, one of the enthusiasts who looks after the WWI Aero magazine, and Sean in turn introduced me to Brian Perkins, who’s built a truly magnificent 35% scale model of a Bristol Scout, finished as G-EAGR, the only one to be transferred to the civil register at the end of the war.
I spent a long time admiring Brian’s work, the result of three years’ labour, and then watching it fly. It seems to handle beautifully; the first flight this weekend was only the seventh it had ever made and takeoff and landing looked very stable and straightforward, though how much of this was due to the aircraft, and how much to Brian’s skill was impossible to judge! He says he’s been coming to Old Rhinebeck for 40 years – hard to believe, but he showed me a magazine front cover from the 1970s with Brian holding his first model, which was a Bristol Scout! In fact he says this is his fourth Bristol Scout – he just likes the aircraft so much. I promised to send him some drawings so that he can make the next one even more accurate…
The models flew in the morning, and the full sized aircraft displayed in the afternoon. I was particularly interested to watch the Caudron G3, which has an 80hp le Rhône engine, to get an idea about the starting and running of the engine.
It seemed to be pretty straightforward, as demonstrated on the field. They hopped the Caudron down the field, and it performed faultlessly. The oldest aircraft there is an Anzani-engined Bleriot from 1909 which also hopped flawlessly. The bark of its Anzani engine is quite unmistakeable, but I believe it’s pretty marginal on power, and only flown by lightweight pilots.
They also flew a replica of a 1910 Hanriot which looks every inch the part, the fuselage being based on a racing skiff, with long narrow tail surfaces like a bird, and very unusual flight controls – the roll control via wing warping is by a stick that moves left and right in the left hand, the pitch control by a stick that moves backwards and forwards in the right hand. The throttle is a plunger just behind the left hand stick, but since you daren’t take your hand off the stick, it’s normal practice to push it fully forward with your elbow on takeoff, and use the ignition cutout switch on the top of the stick thereafter! The bulb on the right hand stick os for pumping up the pressure in the petrol tank…
But perhaps the star of the show for me was the Fokker DVII, which gave a truly impressive demonstration of its performance, including its ability to fly very slowly with the nose pointing skywards, something German pilots made use of to attack enemy aircraft from below. Although the airframe is a relatively modern replica, the engine is an original Mercedes, and the sound of it is truly magnificent.
In the evening I popped in to see Leo at home, to compare notes on some of the design anomalies we’ve come across over a glass of wine provided by Leo’s wife Sandy. It was great to see both of them looking so well, and I’m hoping they’ll be able to come across the pond to look at ours when it’s finished.
I think I’ve shown pictures before, but Leo built his in his basement with only the most basic of tools. It took 15 years, and I have to say that his perseverance is something quite beyond anything we could manage. We have access to waterjet cut metal parts (Leo had to cut them all out by hand); there are three of us and Leo worked all on his own. Leo had to do all the primary research from scratch; we’ve made use of all his original work, together with that of Ellic Somer, who redrew many components to make them easier to understand. All told, we owe Leo a huge debt of gratitude.