Monday, September 05, 2005

The Best Medicine

Aviation, laughter, antique cars and a beautiful late-summer day in upstate New York. Gail took me for a day trip yesterday, a two-hour drive up the scenic Hudson River valley to my favorite place in the world - The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, a working museum of antique airplanes.

The Aerodrome is a unique place; there's nowhere else in the country with a similar collection of ancient airplanes, that actually fly. It was founded by a pilot, Cole Palen, back in 1961 when he acquired a French "Spad" fighter from the first World War. Looking for a safe place to teach himself to fly the old biplane, he bought a spread of farmland near the Hudson River north of Poughkeepsie, and carved a short grass strip into the uneven land. From this unlikely beginning, Cole's collection grew over the years into dozens of rare machines from the early era of aviation, the years before World War II.

In order to fund his hobby - and just for fun - Palen began to give weekend airshows, demonstrating his old birds for the public. He maintained them the way he thought they should be seen, in working condition, not polished and behind glass in a museum. And to make the show accessible to children - and for fun - he added a campy, comic theme; a set of stock WWI characters, heros and villains, and livened up the airshow with fizzing TNT bombs, aerial dogfights and slapstick comedy.

Having spent a lifetime doing just what he loved, Cole passed away of natural causes in 1993. But the Aerodrome lives on, carefully preserved by a nonprofit foundation and the weekend airshows go on every summer. I haven't missed going at least once every season for the last ten years; one weekend is given to a huge model aviation meet. I have also made it a point to take my cadets there every summer to enjoy the show and learn about aviation history.

Originally uploaded by AviatorDave.
Gail and I packed up our many cameras and left early yesterday, hoping to get there in time to sign up for a barnstorming ride in the museum's 1929 New Standard biplane. When we arrived, I trotted right over to the ride booth, but the young girl there said that the rides were sold out; and the morning rides were cancelled due to gusty wind conditions, as well. Well, that was too bad, but we were enjoying the day anyway; I led Gail around the old tin hangars and rattled off chapter and verse on each old plane and bit of machinery. She found an endless variety of things to photograph, from the old planes to the many cars and motorbikes, old engines, and the beautiful countryside around the museum. A friendly old gentleman in a flightsuit invited us to come into one hangar to examine the partially-completed "Spirit of St. Louis" replica; I noticed his nametag, Stanley Segalla - one of the airshow pilots, famous as the "Flying Farmer"!

At 2:00 we sat down on the rustic "bleachers" - planks of wood on cinder blocks - to watch the airshow. The wind kept the very oldest planes grounded, but the rest of the vintage biplanes did their barnstorming acts, as did Mr. Segalla in his Piper Cub. The evil "Black Baron of Rhinebeck" menaced "Sir Percy Goodfellow" and his lovely bride-to-be, "Trudy Truelove" - who shrieked at the top of her charming lungs when the Baron kidnapped her, and Sir Percy and his squadron mates set off in pursuit.

Uploaded by AviatorDave.
After the show, we waited for the crowd to clear out, and walked over to the flightline. I stopped at the fence to talk to a hero of mine, Bill King, another veteran old pilot and one of the lead performers at the Aerodrome. Gail snapped our photo, and Mr. King advised us to stick around, as he thought that the air was calming and the biplane rides would resume. So we did, and as the shadows got longer the air did cool and the wind subsided. We had to wait our turn until the very last ride of the day, but we finally climbed aboard - we had the plane to ourselves (it seats four), and the air was perfectly still. The setting sun over the Hudson valley was perfect for photography, and Gail and I enjoyed the ride immensely, tucked in the open cockpit with the wind and engine roaring. We snapped a few pictures and marvelled at the sensations. The pilot even threw in a little fun, what we call a chandelle; he dove for a little speed and pulled up into a steep turn, rolling the broad orange wings almost vertical, as we watched the glittering Hudson River below us.

After a silky-smooth landing on the grass strip, we drove into the historic village of Rhinebeck, and had an immense dinner at the Coach House Tavern. When we got home, we were exhausted, but fell asleep with the day's images still in our heads. I finally got my pictures posted today; Gail will be hours going through hers, and we have film to develop too. As always, watch her site for the results.

Thanks Gail, and Mr. Segalla and Mr. King... and thanks Cole, wherever you are. It was far and away the best day I've had in a long time.