These pilots fly 100-year-old airplanes

Posted at 4:32 PM, Nov 09, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-09 14:34:39-05

As historians mark exactly a century since the end of World War I, a group of pilots takes to the air in a museum’s vintage airplanes, bringing a bygone era back to life.

Located just two hours north of New York City, the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in New York’s Hudson Valley boasts around 60 vintage biplanes — including reproductions of the famed SPAD VII and the classic Sopwith Camel.

Take a turn off picturesque Stone Church Road, cross a footbridge and you’re jumping back 100 years to a time when airplanes were made of wood and fabric held together by a bit of wire — and not much more.

Watching these planes fly is all the more fascinating when you realize that World War I started just about a decade after the first flights by the Wright brothers, making it the first major conflict involving the large-scale use of aircraft.

In those days, many considered duty as a combat pilot a virtual death sentence. More than 15,000 pilots died during the war.

That’s not too hard to believe when you watch these fragile airplanes in action. Pilots flew essentially totally exposed in open-air cockpits affected by wind, rain, and of course, enemy fire.

Pilots had to master dangerous, difficult-to-control machines and were pitted against one another in close combat. Often the air war became crude and personal, as enemy pilots flew so close to each other they could see each other’s facial expressions — or hand gestures.

The experience of flying vintage biplanes ‘in the moment’

CNN’s drone production team, CNN Air, recently documented some of the museum’s World War I-era fighter planes re-enacting dogfights at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome. A team of FAA-certified drone pilots flew their unmanned aerial vehicles in concert with aerodrome pilots, capturing breathtaking video of their aerobatic skills.

For the pilots who come to Old Rhinebeck to fly these planes, this is not a job. It’s more like a pilgrimage to be a part of something unique.

“It’s very visceral. It’s literally in your face,” said museum Vice President and Chief Pilot Clay Hammond. “You’re wearing a helmet and goggles and the wind’s blowing against your cheeks. You’re hearing and seeing and smelling everything that goes on with that airplane. It’s much more in the moment. It’s much more of a tactile experience.”

The longtime fighter pilot tradition of keeping score began in World War I. This was the war when pilots started counting their kills.

Those who downed five or more enemy aircraft won the right to be called “aces.”

“When we’re up there in these 100-year-old airplanes, you can absolutely think about what it would have been like to have been in that situation on the Western Front in 1917 and how those guys must’ve felt in terms of kill or be killed,” Hammond said.

Is there anything inherently more dangerous about flying these old airplanes — versus a new plane that’s designed to perform complex aerobatic maneuvers?

“Only a little bit,” Hammond said. The aerodynamic performance capabilities of these planes obviously aren’t as sophisticated as today’s aircraft.

“As pilots, we’re always taught to respect the limits of whatever machine we happen to be in,” Hammond said. “So there’s always risk mitigation going on any time we fly anything. It’s just that we probably think about it a little more carefully when flying a 100-year-old World War I fighter.”

Armistice Day to Veterans Day

It was 100 years ago on November 11, 1918, when leaders agreed to an “armistice” peace deal to end a four-year war that had claimed millions of military and civilian lives.

In the United States, they turned it into a national holiday called Armistice Day. By the 1950s, that day became more widely known as Veterans Day.

Many of Old Rhinebeck’s exhibits are original World War I-era planes, including a Nieuport 10 dating back to 1915, a 1917 Morane-Saulnier A-1 and the famed Curtiss JN-4H — widely known as The Jenny. In 1918 over Fort Tilden, New York, a Jenny became the first plane ever launched from a blimp. Jennys also were used to start the US Air Mail system.

Hammond described the museum’s 1918 Jenny as one of its crown jewels.

“It’s the plane a pilot of the time would have been first exposed to … before moving up to the next step which would generally be actual exposure to the actual fighters that they would be flying on the front line,” he said.

The museum’s Jenny is powered by an original, water-cooled Hispano-Suiza V8 engine that can muster 150 to 180 horsepower. The plane is exceedingly slow, with a takeoff speed around 35 to 40 miles per hour and a maximum speed of about 75 mph.

The museum also flies two Fokker Dr.1 triplane reproductions — three-winged planes made famous by the fearsome German fighter pilot Manfred von Richthofen — aka the Red Baron.

Von Richthofen was ace of aces, credited with 80 victories — the most of any WWI pilot. He died after being gunned down in flight in April 1918 in France.

Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome was founded in 1958 by Cole Palen, an aviation enthusiast who loved tinkering with old planes and getting them running again. After he passed away, the aerodrome was established as a nonprofit museum dedicated to preserving and flying many of these historic aviation touchstones.

The static displays of the museum’s rare planes are open from May through October. The aerodrome hosts air shows attended by visitors on Saturdays and Sundays from June to October.

-Greg Agvent and Thom Patterson reporting for CNN

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