Photo: Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome
No matter how sophisticated and well-traveled one may be, there’s a sense of privilege, thrill (for some, trepidation), and adventure, whenever we board an airplane that will soar into the sky, above birds, through clouds, across time zones and oceans, to carry us someplace far away, much faster than we could get there by foot, train, car, or boat.
Now multiply that thrill 100-fold and travel back in time 100+ years, when planes weighed less than 750 pounds, and ran on 4-cylinder, 12-horsepower engines. (Now, commercial planes like the Boeing 737-800 weigh 90,000 pounds and run on engines that weigh thousands of pounds and have fancy gadgets like 3-stage LP compressors).
At Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Red Hook, New York (about an hour south of Albany and about two hours north of New York City), sits a collection of fabulous vintage aircraft. The drive itself prepares you for another, simpler era, when things were handmade from materials you could pronounce. You know...wood, fabric, metal. Red Hook, with a population of about 11,000, is home to Bard College. It retains the feel of a 19th century hamlet where the Astor and Delano families might still flock. Before you head over to the Aerodrome, consider visiting the nearby 120-acre Poets’ Walk, with two miles of trails through woods and meadows featuring views of the Catskill Mountains; this is the same park where Washington Irving allegedly was inspired to write “Rip Van Winkle.” Leaf-peeping there is unbeatable.
Red Hook, in other words, has been sending us on literal and metaphorical flights of fancy for centuries.
The Aerodrome was created by Cole Palen, who was inspired to own and fly the machines he saw overhead as a boy in the 1930s, near the Hudson Valley airport. He started with just six planes in 1958, and managed to create America’s first flying museum of antique crafts. In 1993, a 501(c)(3) was created to continue his legacy.
“Palen is an icon and unquestionably one of the pioneers in the study of flight,” says Darroch Greer, a filmmaker, actor, and producer who is almost as into flying as Palen. (More on his connection to Aerodrome, below). “He’s a World War II vet, and he has been able to show generations of Americans how closely connected the history of flight and our fights for freedom have been in World War I, World War II, and beyond.”
Cole Palen. Photo courtesy of John Wallace Hartford from Aerodrome Archives
Today, the collection includes more than 60 aircraft, 15 or so of which are flyable at any given time (thanks to an in-house mechanic, Ken Cassens, who began flying solo at age 16, and went onto serve as an engineer with the Air National Guard), from the Pioneer Era of flight (1900-1913), World War I (1914-1918), and the Golden Age (1919-1940). For non-aviation nerds, that means planes, from Wright-era reconstructions, to biplanes and monoplanes, that look, quite frankly, too toy-like to fly. But fly they do, every weekend in popular shows through October 20th.
Perennial favorites include the Beleriot XI, a canary-yellow French plane built in 1909, weighing 661 pounds, with a wingspan of 25’ 7”, that reaches a hilariously “top speed” of 47 mph; the 1917 Aeromarine 39B, weighing in at 661 pounds with a 100-horsepower engine, 47’ wingspan and top speed of 73 mph, and a 1931 Curtiss Wright Junior CW-1, a relatively bulky 975 pounds with a 45-horsepower engine, 39’ 6” wingspan and a top speed of 80 mph.
"Bob Johnston gives the Aerodrome's Demoiselle 'Gazelle' a prop with Brian Coughlin at the controls." Photo: Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome
But the museum is much more than a collection of bygone, neat-o relics to gawk at. It is also a celebration of the incredible role flight has played in our quality of life.
Photo: Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome
Not just in getting us from point A to point B in Instagrammable style (though, thanks for that Orville and Wilbur), but also in reminding us of the steely heroics required by early aviators, especially the thousands who enrolled to fly during World War I, whenabout 15,000 pilots died in the then-nascent branch of the military.
The planes on display — tiny, fragile, open-air — make it clear that those who did enroll were signing up to be on the front line, not just against enemy fire, but Mother Nature’s whims.
The first such group of enrollees — the First Yale Unit — was founded by Yale sophomore F. Trubee Davison in 1915 and is thought to be the first naval air reserve unit. An award-winning documentary film titled The Millionaires’ Unit was filmed in part in the Aerodrome, and documented the adventures of filmmaker Ron King’s grandfather John M. Vorys, Davison, and other classmates and cohorts, and was based on author Marc Wortman’s book of the same name.
“The first time we went to the Aerodrome to film these planes in the air, Darroch and I couldn’t believe how fragile they were,” says King. “They were just bamboo, fabric and wires, held together by glue. And yet my grandfather and members of his unit were so passionate about defending our nation, and our freedom, they risked their lives to take to the air in them.”
To make Millionaires', King and filmmaking partner Greer interviewed the Unit members’ descendants, mined archives, interviewed historians, consulted the Sterling Library at Yale, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and dozens of other resources from what many consider to be the most rigorous examination of the Unit to-date. Davidson’s grandsons Harry Davison and Mike Davison helped fundraise to make the film a reality.
Photo: The Millionaires' Unit
The Millionaires’ Unit — like recreational flight in general — seemed easy to mock at first glance. As privileged college students turned fighter-pilots, the New York media world watched on in bemusement and waited for a crash landing...until the extent of their contribution became clear.
“We really wanted to tell their story because their bravery was almost unimaginable, especially in the context of what you might call their privilege,” says King. “They easily could have gone on with their lives and ignored the war, but instead, they were among the first in the nation to volunteer. The entire Unit, minus maybe one, was among the first 100 naval aviators in the U.S. Ever.”
In March of 1917, 13 days before the U.S. officially entered WWI, the Units’ volunteers enlisted en mass. One member, flying a Sopwith Camel (a replica plane is at the Aerodrome) was the first naval flyer to become an ace; later, he served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Also among alums were an Assistant Secretary of War, an Undersecretary of the Navy, and a Secretary of Defense.
We dare you to hit the Aerodrome and remember — and honor — the unsung heroes who paved the way for the way we live today. When you get home, Amazon Prime members can watch The Millionaires’ Unit as part of the subscription or you can rent or purchase the film using the link below.
And stay tuned for more, from Greer and the Aerodrome.
“I was just there filming for my latest, The Lafayette Escadrille, which tells the story of a U.S. unit that joined France in WWI before the U.S. was officially involved,” Greer explains. “They joined to thank the French for helping us fight the American Revolution. It was a matter of honor.”
The film will premiere on November 9th (Veteran’s Day) at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
You don’t have to know the history of these heroes to be swept off your feet at the Aerodrome, however. Each show celebrates the amazing flying talents of the pilots who take their lives in their hands every time they climb into the cockpits of their early plane replicas and defy gravity with their stunts. Truly daring.