By Clifford Hart
Photos: Tom Polapink
The village of Rhinebeck is undoubtedly a place out of time. Its quiet, leafy streets are peppered with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century houses; its main intersection boasts what is purportedly “the oldest inn in America”; and on the opposite corner, the Rhinebeck Department Store looks as if it would be more at home in an Edward Hopper painting than in any shopping center.
Given its provenance, it may surprise a few to learn that one of Rhinebeck’s most notable historical icons has not been around all that long. In fact, the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is a product of the latter twentieth century, the realization of one man’s dream of preserving and celebrating the earliest decades of aviation.
It all started when a Pennsylvania-born and Poughkeepsie- bred man, Cole Palen, bought six old planes that had been housed in hangars at the old Roosevelt Field on Long Island (before the airfield was bulldozed into a shopping center), and, after refurbishing them, ultimately brought them to a farm property he’d purchased outside Rhinebeck in 1959. That rural spot, complete with old barns and open fields, would be a perfect spot, he figured, to house his aircraft and do something extraordinary with them: allow them to fly.
By the following summer of 1960, Palen was ready to put on his first official air show at the Aerodrome, a classification that casts back to the earliest days of flying, when aerodrome (rather than airport) was the preferred term to define a place where planes could land and take off from any direction.
And take off and land they did. Before long, Mr. Palen’s flying machines were attracting sizable attention, and people were coming from far and wide to get a glimpse of the antique planes soaring through the air over Rhinebeck.
But that was only the beginning. Mr. Palen’s bent for theatricality led him to start adding spice to the celestial escapades, and soon his planes weren’t just flying overhead but were also engaging in mock rescue missions and mock World War I dogfights.
With the increased excitement came a sizable increase to the aircraft collection. Today, the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome features over seventy planes from three different eras: Pioneers—with original and reproduction aircraft, including a replica of the Wright brothers’ first flyer from 1903; World War I—featuring a host of fighter planes from the first-ever major war involving aircraft; and the Golden Age—featuring planes from 1919–1940.
But it doesn’t all happen up in the air. The Aerodrome has expanded its ground-based operations to include over thirty classic automobiles, including a 1917 ambulance and several antique motorcycles. Also on the property are a veritable village of airplane hangars and storage buildings, an eighteenth-century Dutch barn, covered bridges and even a caboose.
And this year for the very first time, the Aerodrome will celebrate the 89th anniversary of Lindbergh’s historic trans-Atlantic flight by welcoming into its collection an authentic reproduction of his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, and feature flying demonstrations throughout the season, which runs weekends from June 11 to October 9.
For more information, visit www.oldrhinebeck.org or call 845.752.3200. █