- Photo by David Morris Cunningham.
Strapping on a leather Snoopy cap, flat flying goggles and a scarf to guide your biplane expertly over a rushing river are what dreams—or movie sets—are made of. For those who live in the Hudson Valley, though, the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome has made the fantasy come to life. Don’t worry—you’ll be given a more dependable helmet than a thin piece of leather, an experienced pilot will be doing the flying, and the Hudson River doesn’t exactly “rush.” The rest, though, is imagination come to life.
The Aerodrome, instituted in 1959, is Cole Palen’s opus. After spending his life savings on six WWI aircrafts that were up for sale when Roosevelt Field closed in 1951, Palen laboriously moved his new treasures upstate. By the time Palen passed in 1993, his collection had grown to over 60 vehicles.
Today, museum president Mike DiGiacomio is in charge of the Aerodrome’s airplanes, automobiles, motorcycles, engines and memorabilia. Four buildings display aircraft from aviation’s golden years: the pioneer and barnstorming eras and WWI. Growing up with a father in the US Air Force, DiGiacomio has been around planes all his life. “Aviation’s always been one of my biggest passions,” he says.
The world-renowned Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is in the vocabulary of most aviation and history buffs. The collection is truly rare—several of the planes are the last of their kind, and others are the world’s sole reproductions. As donations are made, the exhibit grows and changes. Recently, a 1940s Jeep was given to the museum. On the weekend, two distinct air shows delight all ages. Every Saturday, the History of Flight displays aircrafts from the early 1900s up to WWI, as well as ribbon cuts, acrobatics, and mock bomb drops. Sunday air shows include fireworks and pyrotechnics, dogfight simulations, and WWI replica aircraft.
Aside from pure entertainment, the Aerodrome’s museum, air shows and biplane rides help people understand old time aviation and industry. “[The Aerodrome] shows the struggles of mankind and how men and women worked hard at problems and solved those problems in different ways,” DiGiacomio says. “It shows how people can persevere. Without all those struggles and all the work people did in the early 1900s, we wouldn’t have jets that fly across the country.”
While it’s not an easy task to compete with iPads, iPhones, and other technology, historic aviation is fairly easy to understand. “My favorite part [of this job] is passing on the joy of flight and the excitement of it all to the younger generations,” DiGiacomio says. “Aviation back then was much more accessible and existent to the common person. A biplane could land in your backyard and take you for a ride.” Teenagers don’t have to leave all their handheld devices in the car, though. Even history-based museums have to keep up with changing times. For example, some of the displays have QR codes that you can scan with your smartphone to get a description of what you’re looking at.
The museum is open daily from 10am to 5pm. Airshows and biplane rides are held every weekend through October, weather permitting. Bring along a few friends—the plane can fit up to four people.