Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome going strong at 50

A plane built in 1909 is still taking to the skies every Saturday and Sunday at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome.

The century-old Blériot XI — the oldest still-flying airplane in the U.S — is named after Louis Blériot, who became the first person to fly the English Channel in a Blériot XI monoplane in 1909, six years after Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first powered heavier-than-air flight, taking a 605-pound contraption in the air.

Hugh Schoelzel, a retired pilot and former vice president of TWA (and American Airlines, after they purchased TWA) who is now the president of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome’s airshow, has moved back in time, from flying Boeing 747s to flying the Blériot in weekend shows. “I step on a 747, and this is what they started with, this is what they came from,” Schoelzel said. “It’s got so much history, it just gives me tremendous respect for the people who flew it back in the day.”

“It’s exciting for me to fly it,” Schoelzel said. “It’s an awesome experience for me.”

At the airfield, visitors can hear the roar of the antique engines, smell the burning castor oil, and see pilots and actors in period costumes. The “living museum” envisioned by Aerodrome founder Cole Palen is very much alive.

“You’ll be pretty sure that it’s 1915,” Schoelzel said. You’ll even get a discount on admission if you show up dressed in period costume, he added.

The Aerodrome — which is celebrating its 50th year — has 16 flying airplanes, including replicas and originals like the Blériot, and more than 40 others in the museum just up the hill from the airfield. The Aerodrome focuses its attention on the three earliest periods of aviation history – the pioneering era with the earliest gossamer-winged planes, the planes of World War I, and the “barnstorming” or “Charles Lindbergh” era just after the war.

“There’s nothing like it in the world,” Schoelzel said. “We have the largest collection of regularly flown [antique] planes.”

The term “barnstorming” comes from a stunt that debuted in the earliest days of aviation: flying a plane through a barn that had been opened up on both ends, said Don Fleming, the Aerodrome’s vice president.

“A lot of these airshows were on farms,” Fleming said. There was a daredevil aspect to most early flights, from the constant pursuit of new world records and the prevalence of stunts like “wing-walking,” where a person stands on the wing of a flying plane. One relatively safe stunt that finds its way into the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome’s airshows is “ribbon cutting,” in which a pilot drops a long roll of ribbon from the aircraft, and crosses the plane back and forth across the line, cutting it with the plane’s wing or propeller. In Aerodrome shows, they use toilet paper because it’s cheap and biodegradable, Fleming said. They also do “balloon busts,” in which groups of balloons are send aloft and two or more pilots compete to see who can burst more by hitting them with their propellers.

The airshows haven’t changed much since Cole Palen’s day, Schoelzel, from the aerial acrobatics to the melodrama that accompanies the pilots’ performances.

“Every time we try to change something, people say ‘no, no, no, we like it the old way!'” Schoelzel said.

The ground show, featuring characters named Sir Percy Goodfellow, Trudy Truelove and the dastardly Black Baron of Rhinebeck. Palen himself portrayed the Black Baron for several years, and played up the drama with a cape and a sneer, and lots of makeup. He had “more and more scars every week,” Fleming said. And to top it all off, his plane was a replica of the dreaded 1917 Fokker DR-1 triplane made famous by the German ace Baron Manfred von Richthofen, also known as the “Red Baron.”

Besides admission to airshows ($20) and the museum, the Aerodrome offers biplane rides for $65. This year, both of the passenger planes — 1929 New Standard D-25s — have been out of service some time. For five weeks, almost a third of the season, there has been no plane available. The first plane was damaged in a “fender-bender,” as Schoelzel called it, when it went off the airway while still grounded. There were passengers aboard, but the plane was going slow enough that no one was injured. Still, the plane’s fragile body was damaged and it will be out of service until full repairs are made over the winter.

The second passenger plane went down in July, when chief pilot Bill Gordon noticed that the oil pressure was erratic during a maintenance flight. The engine was shipped to a specialist in Oklahoma City, and the repairs dragged on longer than expected.

“We were hoping it would be there for two weeks,” Schoelzel said. “It turned out to be more like two months.”

The engine is due back this week, and the plane should be back in the air soon, Schoelzel said. Despite the substantial revenue loss that the lack of passenger flights represented, Schoelzel said safety comes first.

“We operate to the same standard as an airline,” Schoelzel said. “We’re not happy about it. If it costs us revenue that’s too bad. I know we’re doing the right thing.”

He said he’s sent his grandchildren up in the plane, and won’t put it back in the air until he’d feel comfortable sending them back up in it.

The old planes require meticulous maintenance to stay aloft even under good circumstances. “Each one takes about takes about 13 hours of maintenance for each hour spent in the air,” Fleming said.

Herb Gregory, 70, is a volunteer who has helped maintain the planes for the last three years.

“I stared mowing lawns, fixing lawnmowers, and fixing tractors,” he said. A retired airline captain and former naval aviator in the U.S. military, he sometimes flies a replica of a 1911 Honriot at the Aerodrome.

“It’s like nothing else in the world,” Gregory said. He almost had to re-learn how to fly, because the controls for such old planes are very different than modern planes, like 767 and MD11 that he flew in his career as a commercial pilot. This is his first year flying, and he’s limited to “baby flying” in the plane, he said, “just down the field.”

Because the controls are not as responsive as modern planes, “you have to think about every maneuver,” he said. “They crashed a lot of them in the 1900s.”

Schoelzel said that learning how to fly one antique plane won’t necessarily

“They were experimenters,” he said, so even two planes built in the same year could have totally different controls.

The Aerodrome’s museum is open seven days a week during the season and has plenty to see, even on days with no air show. Many exhibits pay tribute to the Aerodrome founder, who died in 1993 – Palen’s gap-toothed smile is instantly recognizable in photographs taken at the airfield throughout the years. Besides airplanes, the museum also has plenty of other artifacts, from old cars and motorcycles to World War I bayonets and machine guns. Modern flyers who complain on legroom on jumbo jets can put things in perspective by seeing an original “passenger compartment” from a 1929 Ford Trimotor, which looks an awful lot like a high-backed wicker chair.

Tributes to pioneering aviator Harriet Quimby also highlight the unique situation of an ambitious woman in the early days of flight. An actress, journalist and screenwriter who was the first woman in the Unites States to get her pilot’s license and the first woman to fly the English Channel, Quimby died eight years before the passage of the 20th Amendment, granting female citizens in the United States the right to vote.

A photograph of Quimby flying a 1909 Bleriot XI is captioned: “her stiff upright posture may be partially explained by the wearing of a corset.”

One of the planes was built for a 1966 movie called “The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-ling-ling” that was never made, set to star Gregory Peck and Ian McKellan but scrapped after five weeks of filming. The title comes from a World War I soldier’s song.

Weather and bad luck, more than the economy, is to blame for a down season. Last year the Aerodrome had about 22,000 attendance over the course of the season. But the constant rain has dampened attendance this season, like it has for so many outdoor events.

“You just never know about the rain,” Schoelzel said. “We depend on the weather gods to look down on us.”

He said this year’s attendance is shaping up to be “no better than average” because of weather, but remained hopeful. “We can always have a fabulous fall.”

Published by the Daily Freeman