Tinged by the fall air and beckoned by the crystal blue dome of the sky at Cole Palen’s Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in early October, I made my way past the snack stand and the new field gift shop to the Biplanes Rides Booth, reserving one of the four passenger seats on Hudson Valley Air Tours’ New Standard D-25 open-cockpit aircraft.
My ticket, now at an even $100 and a significant increase over its $25 1995 price, would ensure me space on Flight HV 007, which departed at 1215. Although unofficial, the flight number was devised from the fact that it was the seventh ascent of the day.
I would be accompanied by a young couple, who would share the forward of the two bench seats, and a white bearded man, who would join me in mine behind them. The pilot, of course, with his own cockpit, was situated behind all of us.
The sign at the departure terminal-translated as “outside Rides Booth”-advised, “New Standard D-25, American, 1928, engine – 220-hp Continental. Designed expressly for the barnstormer, the D.25 was Charles Day’s 25th aircraft design. It carried four paying passengers, was easy to fly, operated out of the smallest fields, and used modern (1928) construction techniques. This, our first New Standard, has carried over 11,000 passengers here at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome.”
It was not entirely correct. The passenger total was only accurate several years ago and its single D-25, registered N19157, had since been joined by a second, N176H, which I would fly for the first time today, my other Hudson Valley aerial sightseeing flights having occurred in 1995, 2000, and 2006.
Field-settling after its previous circuit, it taxied to the booth and disgorged its quadruplet of passengers, before the next four, armed with the pre-departure safety briefing and clad in helmets and goggles, were permitted to traverse the grass to the two-step “ramp” positioned at the lower wing’s trailing edge. Turn-around time of this now 89-year-old airplane could be measured in minutes.
Following the root walking strip of the black-fuselage, orange-wing biplane, whose engine turned and sputtered the entire time, I stepped into the cockpit-and into the Golden Age of barnstorming. Claiming the left of the two rear bench seats (2A) and extending my seatbelt, like a metal handshake, to that of the passenger’s next to me in 2B, I intimately interconnected it with his. Shared bench seats meant shared seatbelts.
The assault of the ears and nose, even with its propeller in idle rotation, resulted in an instant immersion into late-1920s, cabin-devoid technology. So fierce was the slipstream, that my nostrils could not ingest the air and the throaty sputter of the engine was deafening. I had, like on my other open-cockpit occasions, hoped to experience this era of aviation through my senses. Perhaps I was-and I was still on the ground no less.
If its idle setting was a snooze, then its throttle advance resulted in a rude awakening. Brake-released, the biplane commenced its sprint over the grass toward the runway’s threshold, which, in this case, was the field’s south end, turf-blanketed hill, surmounting it and swinging around to its right, in a 180-degree turn, on its tailwheel.
There was no take off clearance. There was no radio with which to provide it. Nor was there any other ground traffic with which to be concerned.
A full throttle advance, opening the fuel’s arteries and pumping the aircraft’s engine with life-exploding plasma, induced the airplane into gravity-aided momentum down the hill, at the bottom of which its tail rose in horizontal stabilizer flight, enabling the wings to do the rest and generate lift.
The slipstream created by the rotating propeller and the increasing air speed, hopelessly unrestricted by the tiny Plexiglas windshield, pounded my face and served as such an onslaught to my nostrils, that they ironically failed to accept, despite the overabundance of air, the very substance that was needed by my lungs.
It certainly reached the wings, however, its increased speed inversely countered by its decreased pressure and enabling the biplane to jump off the rolling grass strip. Dual wings signified double the amount of surface area and its lift-generating capability. Surrendering to the cold, brisk, crystal blue, it passed the line of aircraft seemingly tucked into a preserved pocket of history on the port side in the form of a Caudron G.III, an Albatros D.Va, and a Fokker Dr.1 triplane.
Surmounting the north end of the field and briefly banking to the left, the D-25 triumphed over the size-decreasing verdure of the Hudson Valley. Norton Road, now a ribbon narrower than the type used in package wrapping, passed under the port wing. Viewed from a different and downward perspective, it was the road from which I had looked up at this very airplane as I had approached the aerodrome, which now receded behind my left shoulder.
Having transcended the earth’s physical boundaries, the D-25 sliced through the blue tinged with an autumn bite, its orange, strut-interconnected, fabric-covered wings passing over the still mostly green tree and farmland patches only occasionally highlighted by a lemon sentinel.
A pause facilitated my internal contemplation, both of the four-person cabin and my location in it on previous surreys into Cole Palen’s barnstorming skies. I currently occupied my original seat-that is, the one on which I had been introduced to the element-exposed era of air travel back in 1995. In the forward, right of the two seats-1B-had sat Jose, one of my Farmingdale State University Aviation History Course co-students and next to him in 1A, Christian, as I recall, another in our class. I replaced Jose on my next two aerial ascents in 2000 and 2006 and my mother had sat next to me on both of them.
Now I theoretically sat behind her-or at least her seat-but, since she left the physical plane some 20 months earlier, I could only include her on my present flight by coming as close to the surly slip of earthly bonds and soaring of which her soul was now assuredly capable. It was up here now with me, I knew.
Cole Palen himself, founder of his famous aerodrome, eclipsed the line between the physical and eternal dimensions two years before that initial fight in 1995, and, after graduation, I never saw Jose or Christian again. Well, at least I still had myself.
The wind, perhaps echoing them all, wrestled with the engine for sound dominance, but, although the latter technically won, both roared and howled in their own way. Could the open-cockpit experience have been just as authentic without them? I doubt it.
Skirting the fringes of the Hudson River, an azure snake that interspersed the verdant topography, the D-25 banked left before reaching the steel, erector set resembling Rhinecliff Bridge, signaling an all-too-soon return to the field.
Its shadow, a ground reflected silhouette, jumped through the farm geometries below like a boundless spirit and certainly bore the imprint of Cole.
Riding the invisible air currents, the biplane initiated a series of sharp s-turns, its wings swaying and protesting with each maneuver and its airspeed fluctuations registering as audible wind intensities.
Passing perpendicularly over the green swatch that was Old Rhinebeck’s barnstorming airfield at 500 feet, the D-25 arched around in a descending left turn in a power-reduced, gravity-pulling approach, virtually diving toward the tree clusters obstructing its south end.
Passing over the hill, it arrested its descent rate at some 100 feet above the ground, flaring and abruptly snatching the gravel path traversing the field with its two wheels and allowing the resistance of its grass to drain it of its momentum.
Swinging around to the left with a burst of power, it taxied back to the Biplane Rides Booth beneath the intense noon blue.
Releasing the buckle of the seatbelt I had shared with the man I never knew, but with whom I had exchanged occasional, kindred-spirit glances in the air, I climbed out of the cockpit of the still-spurting biplane and down the wing root to the ground-and back into 2017.