In aviation circles, there are a number of airfields and collections around the world that capture the imagination and become almost mythical as part of aviation folklore. Old Rhinebeck is most certainly amongst those legends, especially for those with an interest in those early years of aviation right through until the 1930s.
Delicately nestled between towering trees, Old Rhinebeck is like taking a step back in time. An undulating grass strip awaits any expectant aviator with a helpful dog-leg half way along the runway. This certainly makes for an interesting challenge for the pilots, alongside an impressive viewing experience for the visitors.
The airfield itself was the brain child of Cole Palen who purchased a selection of old WW1 aeroplanes with an ambitious plan to get them flying again. He succeeded in getting these machines in the air but then needed somewhere to put them. Old Rhinebeck as a concept was then born in the late 1950s. Over the years Cole developed the shows from a low-key aerial demonstration to a fully choreographed routine complete with ground show and extensive pyrotechnics. This developed into an incredible legacy that still sees Old Rhinebeck roar to the sound of aero engines and cheering spectators every weekend during the flying season (June-October).
As part of this years Warbird People series I wanted to feature a pilot’s eye view of some of the aircraft from the First World War. I thought there would be no better place to start than Old Rhinebeck. I was put in touch with Alex Jameison, one of the collection’s pilots who has been involved with the airfield since he was a young boy. Alex explained how he started out at 15 as a “typical teenage kid..helping out”. Gradually he started to get more and more interested as the work continued and he moved on to volunteering for the shows. As part of this he was pulling chocks and preparing aeroplanes which helped him develop a love for these machines. The deciding factor though was when someone decided to give him an aeroplane ride, from then on he was “hooked” and there was no question in his mind what he wanted to do.
At 16 Alex began his flight training, obtaining his pilots licence at 18. From then on his flying experience built as he worked towards his commercial licence. Alex is now an airline pilot by trade but while building hours he managed to gather some tailwheel time, including plenty of time in a locally based cub. This gave him a great opportunity to build hours at Old Rhinebeck. After building up those important hours Alex found himself being checked out on the collection’s 1942 Fleet Finch. After a few flights getting to grips with this aeroplane, the door was opened to the rest of the collection.
The Finch together with the Curtiss Robin provided a good stepping stone for the more difficult early aeroplanes. By the time Alex was starting to approach the earlier types he was certainly familiar with the confines of Old Rhinebeck and the challenges it can bring about. Alex describes the field itself as “very interesting” being short and a tight fit with plenty of trees around. It take attention and preparation and you have to “know what you’re getting into” as anything can happen with old aeroplanes and there are limited options. It is certainly “one of the more difficult airfields” he has flown out of. All familiarization flights are carried out from the airfield, which means pilots are well and truly checked out once a few flights are completed. Alex commented if you can fly these aeroplanes in and out of Old Rhinebeck “you’re good to go”. Winds are often a concern when operating old aeroplanes and Alex explained that a wind straight down the runway of about 15mph or less is reasonable. The problem comes with any wind from any other direction as the trees around the airfield can play havoc with lighter aeroplanes in the collection.
The next step for Alex was not dissimilar to the path many great war pilots would have followed, learning to fly the Bleriot XI. This aircraft is one of the oldest flying aeroplanes in the world. The first flight in the Bleriot went well and Alex explained that one of the reasons that he makes “one of the better candidates” for the Bleriot pilot is because he is smaller and lighter, which with an aeroplane with limited power, makes for a good combination! Describing a flight in the Bleriot Alex explained that its difficult to get a full picture for the types handling as “everything goes so fast” and you are “going through the most critical phases of flight in a matter of seconds”. Everything on the Bleriot is “tired” so once in the air the machine is effectively just “hovering along” to an extent. While a difficult aeroplane to judge, Alex smiled and commented that it is basically like any other aeroplane; “you push the stick forward, the houses get bigger, pull it back the houses get smaller”. Being such an old machine, this airframe has “different personalities” on different days, especially in windier conditions. Ahead of the conversion to the Bleriot Alex took the view of sitting down with as many pilots as possible before going out and taking his first flight.
While pilots early in the war might have flown the frail Bleriot, later trainees and interwar pilots would have been more familiar with another type in Alex’s logbook, the Curtiss Jenny. The Jenny became synonymous with barnstorming flying in the interwar years and is an impressive reminder of the Curtiss legacy from those early years of flight. Alex’s face lit up when talking about the Jenny and it is clearly a favourite. The Old Rhinebeck example is a “very easy flying aeroplane” almost like a “giant Cub”. Despite its docile handling, it is reserved for later on in the training process as it is a largely original airframe. Time spent flying the Curtiss Robin and Standard D25 provided a good grounding for taking this original machine up. Alex explained that the Jenny is a “hoot” and that “everything is right about it”. The museum’s example is a rare Hispano-Suiza powered variant, which gives the “right rumble and vibration” which combined with the whistling flying wires makes for an “honourable and humbling experience”.
Old Rhinebeck typically operate a structure of pilot development, through the fleet up until a trainee pilot arrives at the WW1 types. Typically the first of the fighters would be the Albatros, though owing to technical difficulties Alex took a different path. His introduction to the WW1 fighters was the museum’s SPAD VII. This replica is a more modern example and features a more reliable engine together with the useful addition of brakes. This makes it a more straightforward introduction into WW1 flying. Alex has flown the SPAD regularly as part of the Old Rhinebeck shows and describes it as an interesting” aeroplane. Expanding, he explains that it is that the airframe is just a “little different”, not being the “most authentic” of the fleet. This works in the collection’s favour for trips away from Old Rhinebeck however as it offers a much more reliable package for cross-country trips. It makes a great introduction to the fighters.
One airframe that symbolises First World War aviation for the general public more than any other would be the Fokker Triplane. Alex has been lucky enough to log some time in a privately owned example while it was based at Old Rhinebeck. Much like the SPAD, Alex’s first comment about the Triplane is “an oddball” citing both aircraft as amongst the most difficult machines he has flown. In the air the Fokker is “okay”, sturdy in roll but quite sensitive in pitch. A well-known feature of the Triplane is the lack of a fixed fin. The whole fin moves as the rudder which Alex describes as resulting in a “constant yawing motion”. Without question though the worst part of flying the Triplane is the landing. “Just miserable” was Alex’s simple way of describing getting the airframe back on the ground. The middle wing, if three-pointed, completely blocks any forward visibility, making any touchdown effectively guesswork and any bounces can develop into ground loops quickly. Another drawback is that once the tail is down half of the rudder is blanked off, losing rudder authority right at the most crucial moment. This means that to adjust any swing on landing full opposite rudder is needed, rather than the more common slight adjustments for other types. On the merits of three-point vs “wheeler” landings, Alex explained he favoured the first option while flying the Triplane as it allowed the skid to bleed off the speed as quickly as possible.
What’s next for Alex’s logbook in the collection then? The answer, hopefully, is the Albatros. In fact, that was to be a central part of this feature. As is often the way with these aeroplanes, the weather put pay to that plan. I hope to catch up with Alex to get his thoughts on flying another iconic German fighter once he has had the chance to get in the air. Looking further to the future, Alex hopes to fly as many WWI aeroplanes as he can, which certainly sounds like an excellent ambition to me.
In terms of the display flying at the airfield, Alex explained that everything aside from the pre-WWI aeroplanes carry out full flights. The rarer aircraft get put through gentle figure of eight routines while some of the more capable aeroplanes are put through aerobatics or more energetic performances. Alex clearly enjoys his time display flying, telling me a story of a mock dogfight at the controls of the SPAD against the Triplane at a show as both pilots turn to try to gain the advantage. Every display is carefully briefed of course, but that doesn’t take away the excitement and enjoyment of recreating those battles in the air.
As a final thought I asked Alex about the prospects of flying a rotary powered airframe. He commented that it is something he really needs to “think about”. The engines are so old and so rare that it needs careful consideration. He has run a couple of examples on the ground before and taxied some of the rotary machines. Old Rhinebeck have a selection of rotary types based on the airfield including a Sopwith Pup (80hp Le Rhone), Caudron G3 (80hp Le Rhone) and a privately owned Fokker DVIII (160hp Gnome). Flying a rotary at Old Rhinebeck is “intimidating” as there are so few options around the field for any problems so a pilot needs to be very familiar with the engine operation before flying. It is certainly something Alex would be happy to try at some point in the future.
Overall, what does Alex think to his time flying these machines so far, especially when compared to the “day job”?
“Going from flying from the oldest aeroplane in the country…. to jumping into a newer jet, you get to appreciate where we’ve come in over 100 years”.
“It has been a fun adventure flying all these old aeroplanes out here”.
For more information on Old Rhinebeck and how you can support the musuem, together with details of upcoming airshows, please visit their website.