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.
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.
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.
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.