Pioneer Aircraft Day at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome

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The object appearing in the sky on the last hot, but dry, Saturday in August, increased in size, revealing a jet-black fuselage, a sputtering propeller, and two red, fabric-covered wings. The scene, reminiscent of the 1920s, should have long faded with my grandparents.

Passing over the south end of the grass-covered field marking Cole Palen’s Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, the aircraft overflew the fence-lined fleet of mostly biplanes which stood poised to perform in its “History of Flight” airshow, as they had for more than half a century. But three particularly frail designs, appearing as if they had just crossed the line between the movie, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, and reality took center stage, directly across from the hamburger and fried onion aroma emitting Aerodrome Canteen grill. They constituted Old Rhinebeck’s “pioneer”-or very earliest-airframes, and would provide the day’s post-show focus, since today marked its annual Pioneer Aircraft Day.

As designs, they represented the third development phase of aviation’s technological climb.

The first, of course, can be represented by the Wright Brothers, who conquered controlled, powered, heavier-than-air flight on the sands of Kill Devil Hills in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903, primarily because they had embarked on a course of systematic solutions to the obstacles of aerial flight-namely, lift, propulsion, and control. The latter, subdivided into the three axes of lateral, longitudinal, and vertical, is what had enabled them to achieve “sustained” flight-as opposed to the myriad of other brief, but abruptly-ending attempts.

Trial and error, leading to numerous aircraft configurations, characterized the second phase, during which time inventors found their own paths to the Wright Brothers’ tri-axis control system. As a result, initial successes were few and fleeting.

Alberto Santos-Dumont’s 14bis biplane, for instance-powered by a 50-hp, rear fuselage-mounted Antoinette engine and sporting a boxkite wing with considerable dihedral, made a short, 197-foot hop on October 23, 1906 and is thus credited with having made Europe’s first powered flight.

These aeronauts, like Santos-Dumont himself, took initial ideas and transferred them into physical aircraft, resulting in numerous configurations regarding the number of wings, powerplant attachment points, and banking mechanisms.

Nevertheless, aeronautical science, expressed by the aircraft which properly employed it, matured.

On October 26, 1907, for example, the Voisin-Farman I, combining a Wright Brothers-type biplane with a forward, dual-surface elevator and boxkite tail, and powered by the 50-hp Antoinette, won the Archdeacon Cup for its 2,530-foot flight. Unofficially covering 3,380 feet in one minute, 14 seconds the following November 7, it became the first European attempt to exceed the Wrights’ duration-by 15 seconds.

The Aerial Experiment Association, founded by Dr. Alexander Graham Bell and his wife and quickly joined by Glenn Curtiss, targeted aerial flight in the post-Wright Brothers United States with an aileron-equipped, bowed-wing biplane sporting both a forward elevator and an aft, horizontal and vertical tail, dubbed “June Bug,” which won the Scientific American magazine’s prize for the first public demonstration of a flight to exceed one kilometer on July 4, 1908. The controversial event, disputed by the Wrights-who themselves had conducted all of their early experiments without witnesses-had covered the 5,090-foot distance in one minute, 42 seconds at a 39-mph airspeed.

The pioneer aircraft, the culmination of the second phase’s teething troubles, were the result of their earlier designs, configurations, and iterations, representing a plateau of, albeit meager, consistency and reliability, and notching up the first speed, distance, and altitude records. Pitted against one another, they demonstrated their individual superiorities during competitive air races, before conquering many of geography’s natural obstacles, in an ultimate man-versus-machine challenge, such as the English Channel and the Andes Mountains. The concept of distance was, in the process, replaced with time.

As evidenced by Old Rhinebeck’s Pioneer Aircraft Day, these airframes represent the first steps toward the “true airplane,” and, in many cases, provided the basic configurations which remain unchanged today.

According to Hugh Schoelzel, Old Rhinebeck Air Show President, the event itself arose to focus on and showcase these pioneer designs late in the day, after the standard show, “when the weather is cooler and there’s more lift,” resulting in conditions which are more conducive to their frail, fabric-covered wings. “The sun is also lower,” he continued, “making it better for photographers because of the light.” One of three collection-categorizing eras, the pioneer aircraft are joined by the aerodrome’s later, World War I and Lindbergh era airplanes.

Old Rhinebeck’s pioneer aircraft, including the Bleriot XI, the Hanriot, and the Curtiss Model D, represent aeronautical developments from France and the US, and all feature gross weights of between 500 and 600 pounds. They share several, era-indicative features, which would accurately place them on the aviation timeline of technology.

Structures-for instance–comprised of wood and covered with fabric, were necessarily light in order to reduce airframe weight and cater to the often underpowered engines which propelled them. Nominal speeds otherwise required nothing stronger, and drag was yet to be a bonafide concern with their inter-plane strut connections and crude, exposed wire bracing and control surface actuation methods.

Propellers often served a dual purpose-that is, to provide sufficient power to create airfoil lift and thus support the design’s gross weight in flight, and cool the engine, resulting in its “air-cooled” designation.

Pioneer aircraft designs, representing the beginning of technological development, had yet to share any cockpit control or instrument standardization, and therefore featured differing arrangements of sticks, switches, throttles, and pedals. Their primitive control methods, in fact, can be gleaned from their simplistic features, such as either “on” or “off” switches, which are devoid of intermediate settings; the absence of fuel-flow throttle controls; and the exclusion of wheel brakes.

Their combination of low airspeed and minimal control surface areas required a delicate balance to maintain tri-axis equilibrium, and were sluggish, at best, in their responses to pilot inputs.

In-flight banking-or the equivalent of aerial turning-was usually achieved by means of the Wright-devised wing-warping method in which one of the wing’s angle-of-incidence, and hence lift, increased while the other decreased.

These structural, aerodynamic, and handling characteristics were represented by the Bleriot XI, Old Rhinebeck’s-and the country’s-oldest, original, operational aircraft, hailing from 1909.

The tractor monoplane, with an air-cooled Anzani engine, had been Hugh’s personal choice two years earlier “because it’s the most historic!” he claimed. “It’s original-and the oldest flying in the country.”

“It’s an honor to fly it,” he continued. “It’s virtually the same one which flew across the channel.”

Asked to share his assessment after some 50 field hops, he stated, “It flies like a butterfly-if anyone knows what that’s like. Any slight puff of air causes it to be affected.”

Although its castering wheels can be a positive feature during crosswind conditions, “the wind may not be blowing in the direction you want it to go,” he confessed, and “the rudder has little effectiveness. The pilot is sitting right between it and the prop.”

In flight, “the controls take a long time to respond, unlike those of today’s aircraft, which are immediate.”

Nevertheless, he is proud to fly such an aircraft, having found “renewed respect for Bleriot. He knew so little about aerodynamics, structures, and instruments, yet he crossed the channel,” he proclaimed.

The Hanriot, another of Old Rhinebeck’s pioneer aircraft, is also a tractor monoplane which shares the same basic configuration with that of the Bleriot and had appeared one year later, but its frame, made of mahogany and resembling a racing skiff, is more rugged and therefore requires less repair. It is also powered by a more modern-and water-cooled-engine. Like the Bleriot XI in 2009, the Hanriot celebrated its 100th anniversary this year.

Bill King, who owns his own Tiger Moth and has flown the aircraft for some 25 years, along with the Bleriot, the Curtiss Jenny, and the Albatros, cities its more powerful engine, as mated to the Rhinebeck example, as one of its advantages. “It’s easier to fly than the other pioneers,” he claimed, “with its heavier, more modern engine, making its wing-warping more effective–not like the Bleriot, with its weaker engine. You have to milk it off.”

“The Hanriot just flies itself off the ground,” he continued. “It gives you more time to concentrate on the control of it.”

Like the other pioneer airframes, it is devoid of intermediate power controls. “The throttle stays open the whole time,” he explained, “and you have to blip it for landing,” which interrupts its power output, reducing its airspeed and permitting gravity to exert its effects.

As for its limited cockpit instrumentation, it offered a concept common to and indicative of all pioneer aircraft-seat-of-the-pants sensations, obviating their need. “In all these years,” he confessed, “I never even looked at the airspeed indicator. I just looked straight-ahead and concentrated. I was too busy flying by sight and feel.”

“And during landing, you’re busier than a one-armed paper hanger,” he continued. “You pull the throttle back to idle, press the blip switch, and flatten it to touch down. If you press the button too long, it stalls. If you cut the engine, someone has to come out and turn the prop to restart it. If the engine remains at idle, you can taxi it back,” he ended, obviously rehearsing a quarter-century ingrained routine.

The Curtiss Model D, although also classifiable as a “pioneer” aircraft, hailed from the US, as opposed to the first two French designs, and offered several unique features.

Based upon the June Bug and its succeeding Silver Dart, the Curtiss Model D is a biplane, whose dual wings provide a significant increase in lift capability, and, contrasted with the former two “tractor” designs, is considered a “pusher,” its water-cooled engine mounted behind the wings. Supported by a tricycle, or three-wheeled, undercarriage (which again contrasts with the Bleriot’s and Hanriot’s dual-unit configuration), it projects a forward, elevating plane and trailing edge-fitted ailerons, which replace the wing warping method to induce banks.

Herb Gregory, a retired airline pilot, first became acquainted with the Model D two years ago because he was qualified to taxi it, but a prevalence of other aircraft repair work has so far precluded it from its airworthiness inspection. Having performed some maintenance on the type himself, he first “had to learn a lot about the OX5 engine” before he had been able to work on it, replacing “an o-ring and patching up the crumbled, right aileron frame.”

Asked to share its ground-handling characteristics, he replied, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.

At first, it’s awkward: you have to swing your body from side to side (in order to demonstrate aileron deflections to the spectators) and your head is up against the radiator. During taxiing, the radiator splashes burning water on you, and the ride is bumpy.”

Asked about its taxi speed, he offered, “Not higher than 15 to 30 mph. It gets airborne at 40 to 45.”

However, its pusher arrangement, placing the propeller behind him, provided “no sensation or difference,” and, after some familiarization, he “got used to” its control configuration.

The “History of Flight” airshow, performed amid neither a puff of wind nor a wisp of cloud, proceeded routinely, reintroducing the Curtiss-Wright Junior after a several-year gap and ending with a SPAD VII and Fokker Dr.1 mock dogfight.

At 5:30, the aerodrome’s pulse, like an engine starved of fuel, had ceased. The tables collected under the yellow-and-white striped canopy, next to the snack stand, were empty-except for the one at which I sat to write this article-and its serving windows were boarded up. The bench-like seats, supported by concrete blocks and having been occupied by the day’s spectators, were now equally empty, allowing anyone to choose the most optimum vantage point to view the airshow-except, at this waning time of day, there ordinarily had not been any.

The line of aircraft in front of the short fence had begun to thin, each slowly tractor-towed to its nocturnal hangar. Could the quiet, airframe-devoid, grass field have not been symbolic of aviation’s past-before the pioneer aircraft themselves had dotted the multitude of the world’s grass fields? Without them, there may never have been an aeronautical industry. And, without them, there certainly never would have been an Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome to whose roots it could return every summer weekend for more than 50 years.

Passing over the south end of the field, the black-fuselaged and red-winged New Standard D-25 biplane flared for a landing, completing the day’s last ride, its propeller windmilling and its dual wheels settling onto the cushion of grass. But Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome was about beginnings, not endings.

The light, now suffused by the trees through which it shone during its westerly trajectory, was softer. The air was still, and slightly cooler.

Photographers, sporting heavy, shoulder-dangled camera equipment, huddled round the remaining aircraft on the field, no longer fence-restricted.

However, a few of the elements, like the blood in one’s arteries, continued to pump this pocket of antique aviation into life, indicating that the day was not quite over. 1920s-era music still blared. Staff members, wearing their suspender and cap characteristic clothes, still occupied the field, across which the shadows of the peripheral tress had begun to stretch. A few vintage vehicles had yet to cover the short distance to their parking spots.

Cracking the silence and drowning the piped music, an 80 hp Le Rhone engine, belching smoke and spanning its sputtering propeller, jump-started the aerodrome into life for the second time that day for the dozen spectators still collected on the benches to witness it, providing the spark of the pioneer portion of it.

The aircraft to which that engine had been mounted was the Caudron G.3. The product, like the Hanriot, of a French team, it had been designed by brothers Rene and Gaston. Although it sported dual wings, it represented the transition between the pioneer and World War I eras, as evidenced by its significantly larger size and greater performance capabilities, achieving a 20-mph higher speed and featuring triple the gross weight of the Bleriot.

Supported by two pairs of wheels and sporting twin tail booms and rudders, the G.3, whose upper wing stretched 16 feet longer than the Bleriot’s, had been used for reconnaissance and training purposes during the war, 2,849 examples having been built in France, England, and Italy. Yet, despite its significant increase in capability, it still attained in-flight banking by means of the wing-warping method.

Transforming the grass into a smooth, green sheen by its slipstream-created propeller, the Caudron commenced its long, aerial arch between the field’s south and north ends, launching the day’s post-show pioneer event. The maneuver was subsequently mimicked by the Bleriot XI and the other era airframes.

These aircraft represent the initial heartbeat of aviation, for the first time allowing designers to substitute the word “practical” for “pioneer,” and the initial hop in every Saturday, “History of Flight” airshow, echoing that first hop they themselves had made some one hundred years ago before they had even attempted to fly, and indicating that their antique airframes, fabric-covered wings, and rotary engines had been the lifeblood of both the era and the aerodrome which continually recreated it. Pioneer aircraft signaled the dawn of aviation and now, amidst the pulse of rotating, silence-shattering propellers and the waning sun, the dusk at Cole Palen’s Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome.

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