Torqued: Aerodrome Sparks Memories of a Simpler Time

 - July 22, 2018, 10:34 AM

I’ve meant to go to the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Red Hook, New York, for a very long time. It’s only a few hours from where I live, so there was no excuse why I didn’t get there sooner. But life and work commitments often intervene. And you keep putting off something that seems like a “nice to do” but not a “have to do.”  So, I just never took the time to go until this year.

I found myself driving through upstate New York when a sign for the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome caught my eye. I was running a tad late, and I thought maybe I’d plan to swing by the Aerodrome on my way back. But then as I drove past the sign, I thought of all the times I’d said I’d go and didn’t. And right then and there I made a U-turn and headed back. Maybe there’s never a perfect time to detour to see old airplanes, but I thought this was as good a time as any. And I’m sure glad I did. For the $7 price of admission, I not only returned to the aircraft and engines of my youth but got to marvel over the aircraft that our earliest aviation pioneers flew.

The Aerodrome is about 100 miles north of Manhattan in the small town of Red Hook in the Hudson Valley. It houses more than 60 aircraft and features restored and reproduction aircraft from the early 1900s to the late 1930s. The Aerodrome features both a museum and an actual grass strip, with airshows a regular weekend event in the summer and early fall.

The aerodrome was the brainchild of aviation enthusiast Cole Palen, who was both an aviation mechanic and pilot. According to his biography, when Long Island's Roosevelt Field—the airport where he studied to become an aircraft mechanic—was closed in 1951 to build the huge shopping center that exists there today, Palen used his life savings to buy some of the World War I aircraft that had been hangared there in a small museum. And so his collection of aircraft began with a “SPAD XIII, Avro 504K, Curtiss Jenny, Standard J-1, Aeromarine 39B, and Sopwith Snipe.” He originally stored these on his upstate New York property. But in 1959, a farm in Red Hook, near Rhinebeck, came on the market and Palen bought it. There he laid out a grass runway and built hangars to store his growing collection.

In 1960, Palen opened the Aerodrome to the public and began the vintage aircraft airshows that feature many original and replica models. His philosophy was “it isn’t an airplane if it doesn’t fly” and so many of his models regularly take wing in weekend flight exhibitions. He was also prescient enough to create a foundation to preserve his life’s work, and it is that foundation that today operates the museum and airshows.

Memory Lane

The Aerodrome provided me with a trip down memory lane with the aircraft and engines of my youth. There are basically four hangars crammed with aircraft and aircraft engines in one location and then, a short walk away, the grass strip of the airport is lined by more hangars with aircraft from times gone by. One of the exhibits that stopped me in my tracks was a 1943 military Jacobs R-755 radial engine. That was the first aircraft engine I ever worked on when I was at A&P school at East Coast Aero Tech in Lexington, Massachusetts.

In those days, many schools used military surplus aircraft for students to learn on. We had four-cylinder engines—like the Continental O-200—to work on, too, but the radial engines were considered top of the line for us students. With articulated connecting rods and a gear-reduction mechanism, these engines were more complicated to work on and therefore more of a challenge for the students. They were also more like the air carrier engines of the day and made us feel more like real airline mechanics. Even though the engines are still in use in general aviation aircraft, I hadn’t seen one of them in decades. That one engine brought back many fond memories of my earliest days working on aircraft.

But even before I started my aviation maintenance career turning wrenches, I had been flying for several years. My first flights were in a Piper J-2, a taildragger with a little skid in the tail. Some now have been retrofitted with a small wheel—like the J-3s have—but in my early flying days, they all had little skids, which were good for landing on grass strips. The Aerodrome has a number of early airplanes with skids, many of which predate the J-2. The Aerodrome’s grass strip and taildragger aircraft brought me back to a time when flying really was fun. Even in Boston where I grew up, a number of grass strips surrounded the city. There were actually more grass strips than paved airports back in the late 1950s and early '60s. Those were simpler times. The aircraft were simpler, with only basic instruments and no radios. The skies were so much less crowded, so you could fly low and enjoy the freedom of flying and the view below.   

So, for old timers, I definitely recommend a trip to Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome so you can have your own trip down memory lane. For younger people, I think it’s a great opportunity to experience the foundations of our industry and marvel at the guts it took to fly some of these contraptions. Before wind tunnels and all the test equipment we have today, these early aviation pioneers built, tested, and rebuilt their models up until they got one that flew. And they did all of that while risking their lives in the pursuit of flight.