Saturday, August 31, 2019

Jurassic Airpark

Rotary Wonderland

One hundred and sixteen years ago, modern aviation emerged from the aeronautical primordial ooze of muslin-skinned lifting surfaces and wire-braced airframes. Control was tenuous and non-standard, engines unreliable, and pilots were one with the slipstream.

Cylinder head of a rotary engine

There are few places one can go to see the early dinosaurs of aviation claw their way skyward once again. Few places where rotary engines -- early round engines in which the entire mass of cylinders spins around a fixed crankshaft -- still roar into the air. However, Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Upstate New York is such a place.

Photos of Cole Palen at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome

Old Rhinebeck stands as a memorial to its founder, Cole Palen (1925-1993) who believed that an airplane was only an airplane if it could fly. Put another way, Palen was not a fan of aircraft on static display. He created Old Rhinebeck in 1960 with a collection seeded by purchase of six WWI era aircraft from the former Roosevelt Field where Charles Lindbergh launched on his historic flight to Paris (it is now a shopping mall). Palen found a home for those orphaned aircraft when he purchased the current Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome property. It came inexpensively owing to an unsolved murder that occurred there. Old Rhinebeck has been putting up weekend airshows since its opening, currently running every Saturday and Sunday from June through October. It is one of the few places where one can see and hear authentic pioneer, golden age, and WWI era aircraft take to the sky driven by authentic powerplants, particularly rotary engines.

It is rightfully called a living museum; living, breathing, and spinning about a fixed crankshaft.


Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
31 Aug 2019 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - 20N (Kingston, NY) - SDC 3.4 2019.0

On 31 August 2019, seven people from the Williamson Flying Club took to the sky in three aircraft for a day trip to behold these relatively ancient wonders of aviation.

Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is a private airport. Because of its relatively short, visibly lumpy, and tree-bounded grass runway, prior approval is required for landing there. Approval is contingent on each pilot being counselled by Old Rhinebeck staff.

Rather than push our luck, I planned for us to land at the Kingston-Ulster Airport just across the river from Old Rhinebeck. Warrior 481 is not a great climber with multiple passengers on board, which meant that Old Rhinebeck would have been marginal for my airplane. Furthermore, I did not want to make assumptions about the skill level of any other WFC members who joined.

Scott and Tom flew with me aboard Warrior 481.

Photo by Tom

We landed on runway 33 at Kingston-Ulster a few minutes behind Eric in Eight Five X-Ray. Final approach took us directly over the ramp to the Kingston-Rhinecliff bridge. Though focused on landing, I still had a few rogue neurons that actively wondered if our proximity to road traffic below spooked any of the drivers.

Photo by Tom

Tom surprised me with a stealth photo while I closed up the Warrior.

As the last arrival, Dick had several witnesses to his landing in One Delta Tango, but unlike me, he was unfazed by the attention and acquitted himself well.

Group photo by Tom

Our final leg of the journey was completed in a pair of Ubers. Cell service was sketchy in the area and there was some confusion from both drivers about where the airport was actually located, but that's just part of the adventure, isn't it?

Bienvenue / Wilkommen!

Adult admission to Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is $25 and covers both museum and air show. Discounts are given for children, military, and seniors (65+).  I had previously arranged for an 11:00 am museum tour for the club and we met that timing with five minutes to spare.

Aeronautical Roots

Mike was our tour guide; pilot, president of the Rhinebeck Aerodrome Museum trustees, and -- as we would learn later in the day -- an old-timey escaped convict with a surprisingly good grip (part of the airshow shtick). Although Old Rhinebeck is very much a living museum, some of the aircraft are nonetheless on static display owing to their frailty or high value. 

The museum possesses an original 1908 Voisin that strongly resembled a powered box kite. It was designed by Gabriel Voisin from partial drawings of a Wright 1902 glider, but lacked a wing warping mechanism for roll control. Despite this, it is the aircraft type famously used by Henri Farman to successfully complete a circular course in Europe for the first time.

This particular model was built for Norvin Rinek of Easton, PA to test aircraft engines. It hung in his factory for sixty years before coming to Old Rhinebeck.

Peering through the canard elevator on the Voisin.

This original Wright 6-60 engine was built in 1911 and represents the last of the original Wright brother's engines. As implied by the name, it is a six cylinder in-line engine that delivers 60 horsepower.

This is a Gnome 70 horsepower rotary mounted on the business end of an original 1911 Bleriot XI. It was at the controls of a Bleriot XI that Louis Bleriot made the first flight across the English Channel. This specific aircraft was the one used by Earle Ovington to first demonstrate the principle of airmail in 1911 by flying a bag of mail from Garden City, NY to Mineola, NY.

This Nieuport 83 was part of the same Roosevelt Field collection from which Cole Palen obtained his original six aircraft, but the Smithsonian beat him to it. After some horsetrading with the Smithsonian, Palen eventually brought the Nieuport home to Old Rhinebeck.

This aircraft was of interest because it was owned by famous WWI French fighter pilot and ace Charles Nungesser, also known as the "Knight of Death". Nungesser was one of many aviators who attempted to cross the Atlantic Ocean before Lindbergh's successful flight. Nungesser and Francois Coli departed Paris bound for New York two weeks before Lindbergh's historic flight and disappeared. They were never seen again.

The airplane was actively flown from 1987 to 1990 before Cole Palen retired it to the museum.

This original Morane Saulnier AI was built in 1917 France and flies behind a 160 horsepower Gnome rotary engine.

 At first glance, rotary and radial engines may be easily confused for one another. Both feature cylinders arranged in a circle around a central hub and all cylinders are machined with fins for air cooling. However, at rest, they may be distinguished by their cylinder heads. Rotary engines have simpler heads with a single valve on top and, commensurately, a single pushrod. Radials, on the other hand, have two valves and two pushrods. Once operational, there is no mistaking them: the radial engine spins a crankshaft connected to the propeller while the entire rotary engine spins around a fixed crankshaft. I find it difficult to conceive of so much mass spinning on the front of a lightweight aircraft, but this is exactly how the Gnome, Le Rhone, and Oberursel rotary engines of WWI operated.

This airplane is a more modern American Eagle built in 1929.

It is powered by a 100 horsepower, five cylinder Kinner engine.

Note that there are two valve covers on the Kinner's cylinder head - it is a radial, not a rotary.

Another comparatively modern aircraft for the museum: a 1929 Pittcairn Mailwing PA-7 biplane with a Wright J-6 225 horsepower radial engine.

In concept, this horizontally-opposed, four cylinder Continental A-40 is an ancestor of my airplane's Lycoming O-320 engine. Built in Detroit in 1931, this engine was commonly found on Taylor E-2 and Piper J-2 Cubs and is credited with keeping general aviation alive during the Great Depression. What caught my eye on this engine was the single piece cylinder head used for each bank of cylinders.

The 1930 Monocoupe 90 (so named for its 90 horsepower Lambert radial engine) was favored by air racers of the era.

The "speed ring" or "Townend ring" helped reduce the drag from the engine.

Static Display

Outside of the museum, three additional hangars contain other static display aircraft.

In one, I found a legendary Sopwith Camel. This is a reproduction aircraft with an original 160 horsepower Gnome rotary. It appears to be missing a pushrod.

Someone should tell Snoopy that the mud daubers have been at work on one of his machine guns.

The Sopwith Camel was lauded for its maneuverability and is considered the leading British fighter of WWI.

This reproduction of a Siemens-Schuckert D.III caught my eye. The original aircraft was renowned for its climb rate (perhaps not surprising given the pitch on that propeller).

A Morane-Saulnier "N" model, built by the French in 1914 and powered with an 80 horsepower Le Rhone rotary, it was the first fighter aircraft of WWI to carry a forward-facing machine gun. It pre-dated the invention of the machine gun synchronization gear first used on the German Eindecker fighter. Instead, steel wedges on the back of the propeller were used to protect it from bullets; definitely a brute-force solution to the problem of destroying one's own propeller.

Hanging overhead was a rare Thomas Pusher, Model 2. It was one of twelve built in 1912 by W.T. Thomas in Bath, NY. Given the proximity of Bath, NY to Hammondsport, NY and the similarity in configuration to the Curtiss Pusher (it was even equipped with a shoulder yoke and a Curtiss OX-5 engine), I wondered if W.T. Thomas once worked for Curtiss. Cole Palen flew this aircraft from Old Rhinebeck to New York City to appear on "I've Got a Secret" in April of 1965. On the show, he gave a demonstration of the shoulder yoke used for controlling roll.

Contemporaneous ground vehicles are spread around the site and intermingled with the airplanes.

Tom got to fly one of the biplanes? No fair!

Biplane Rides

We enjoyed a simple, but well-prepared lunch of burgers and fries before exploring the flight line set along the heart of the Aerodrome: its turf runway.

Although the air show would not start until 2:30 pm that day, the runway was not without activity. Old Rhinebeck did brisk business selling biplane rides in their 1929 New Standard D-25.

The old biplane was doing exactly what it was built to do. It was specifically designed for hopping rides. 

Meet the Fokkers

Both Fokker aircraft in this hangar are reproductions. On the left is a Fokker D.VII and on the right is a Fokker Dr.I. Both aircraft are currently active, but we did not see them fly the day we visited (they are featured in the Sunday WWI airshows).

The Fokker Dreidecker (triplane) was notorious as a favored steed of Manfred von Richthofen, otherwise known as the Red Baron.

That Continental radial engine looks a bit modern for a Dr.I. The original aircraft would have been fitted with an Oberursel Ur II nine cylinder rotary engine. After seeing so many rotary engines that morning, the radial truly stands out as an anachronism.

No doubt picked up from "Budget Airspeed Indicators R Us".

An interesting choice of emblem for a warplane.

This Fokker D.VII, despite being a reproduction, is powered by the correct engine: an original Mercedes D.III, 200 horsepower, six cylinder, liquid cooled powerplant.

I got all up in its grill.

Restoration Shop

The museum's 1929 Curtiss Robin appeared to be receiving a new powerplant.

The Spirit Lives on at Old Rhinebeck

The original Spirit of St Louis at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, photographed 21 May 2005.

Cole Palen had a dream of building an exact reproduction of the Ryan NYP (New York to Paris), otherwise known as the Spirit of St. Louis. Though Palen did not live to see it finished, Ken Cassens fulfilled the dream and Old Rhinebeck's reproduction Spirit of St. Louis flew for the first time in December of 2015.

It is generally recognized as the most faithful airworthy reproduction of the NYP in existence. It is powered by an original Wright J-5 Whirlwind radial that Palen procured in 1970 specifically for the project. Flight instruments are original from the 1920s and the aircraft even includes the same type of earth inductor compass that Lindbergh installed.

Just like the original, Old Rhinebeck's Spirit has no forward visibility (Lindbergh filled the space normally reserved for a windscreen with a fuel tank). The pilot must use a side-mounted periscope (which pilot Ken Cassens has described as "useless") or slip to see forward.

Because the aircraft is both precious and a handful, she only flies on particularly calm days. We hoped that we would see her fly, but were told that the decision would not be made until the last minute. Everything depended on the wind.

The Flight Line

After spending so much time around aircraft conceived prior to 1930, this Stearman biplane is almost shockingly modern. Introduced in 1934, the rugged military trainer is simultaneously more robust and more elegant than many of the other aircraft at Old Rhinebeck. 

The 1910 French-designed Hanriot uses a fuselage resembling a racing skiff and relies on wing warping for roll control. Evidently, being in France put the Hanriot beyond the litigious reach of the Wright brothers.

A second Bleriot XI at Old Rhinebeck is actively flown, though we did not see it fly during our visit. This version is equipped with a 35 horsepower Anzani radial engine.

This example, serial number 56, is one of three known original Bleriot XI aircraft still airworthy in the world.

The venerable Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" was built as a military trainer and adopted by barnstormers post-WWI. This 1917 Jenny was equipped with the 150 horsepower Hispano-Suiza engine and was considered the most powerful version of the aircraft.

The Curtiss Pusher (Model D) was an earlier Curtiss design from 1911. This airworthy reproduction flies with an original Curtiss OX-5 engine (unlike the airworthy Pusher at Owl's Head that uses a modern engine as a powerplant).

The Fokker D.VIII was the final Fokker design to see combat in WWI. As a cantilevered monoplane, its clean design gave it such excellent performance that it was known as the "Flying Razor". This reproduction is powered by a vintage 160 horsepower Gnome rotary engine. A 110 horsepower German-made Oberursel UR.II rotary would have been standard in 1918.

This reproduction Sopwith Pup (80 horsepower Le Rhone rotary engine) was built in 1967 and used to fly in dogfights against Cole Palen's Fokker Dr.I until 1982 when it was sold to the Owls Head Transportation Museum. It returned to Old Rhinebeck in 2018.

This was the first rotary engine that I ever saw (and heard) run. As a lead-up to the airshow, it was started and ground run for the first time since its recent restoration.

Old Rhinebeck cranked up (literally) their 1916 Packard moving van. They managed to stall it in the middle of the turf runway, but fortunately got it moving again -- after much more cranking -- before the airshow started.

Things I learned from the Air Zoo: Farmall Cubs make great aircraft tugs. My grandfather would be very pleased with this.

A stylish Ford Model T parked at a jaunty angle among the other vehicles. Note the nod to Roosevelt Field, where Cole Palen procured his first few aircraft, on the nearby motorcycle.

A Taylor E-2 Cub, the grandfather of Piper's J-3 Cub and an early progenitor of my airplane.

A 1925 Ford Model T truck converted to a fuel truck for Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome.

History of Flight Airshow

Old Rhinebeck runs two airshows every weekend from June through October, putting up a variety of rare and unusual aircraft and interjecting lots of cheesy humor. We watched the History of Flight Airshow and thoroughly enjoyed it. Now I want to return to see the WWI airshow featuring dogfights between Fokkers and Sopwiths.

As time for the airshow neared, we saw something that thrilled every one of us: the Spirit of St. Louis was being pushed out on to the field. I glanced at the windsock in front of us. It was utterly limp.

Old Rhinebeck's 1942 Fleet biplane took to the sky to vandalize toilet paper.

Mission accomplished.

The 1910 Hanriot actually flew!

It did not fly high. Instead, it flew the length of the runway before settling back down on the turf.

Photo by Tom

One reason that it does not fly far is that it is challenging to fly. It has a different control paradigm than modern aircraft, using one stick to control pitch and another to control bank through wing warping.

Next up was the Curtiss Pusher. Similarly, it only flew the length of the field.

The pilot provided a demonstration of how the Pusher is controlled. Pushing and pulling on the wheel affects pitch, turning the wheel actuates the rudder, and banking is accomplished by leaning left or right against the "shoulder yoke" to move the ailerons. Like the Hanriot, it is another example of a control system that is a non-intuitive to modern pilots.

I have never seen a Curtiss Jenny fly before and was very excited when this one rolled out on the runway.

Photo by Tom

Next, the Fokker D.VIII performed a demonstration (video, above). The percussive sound of the rotary engine was startling; it sounded like a machine gun. The 160 horsepower Gnome did not have a throttle, so the pilot would interrupt ignition with a "blip" switch to attenuate power. This was utterly remarkable to both see and hear.

Next up was the Spirit of St. Louis. The landing was a thing of absolute beauty. Ken Cassens slipped it in slowly and settled it softly to the ground. A crew had gathered at the far end of the runway to capture the replica Ryan before it could stray into the woods, but Ken put it down hundreds of feet short of where they waited.

Photo by Tom

Photo by Tom

Seeing the replica Spirit of St Louis fly was truly a highlight of the airshow for me (too bad my still camera died before she flew).

Returning Home

We spent roughly six hours at Old Rhinebeck surrounded by ancient aircraft brought back to life.

After arranging for rides back to the Kingston-Ulster Airport via Uber, the crew of Warrior 481 was the last to depart for home.

As we flew east of the Finger Lakes, the early evening sun reflected brilliantly from their surfaces. It was one last wonder to absorb for the day before putting the airplanes back to bed in Sodus.

Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is truly an amazing place. My love of old airplanes is well known, but these are some of the oldest aircraft designs still flying and they do so every summer weekend. In my experience, there is no other place quite like it.