Sunday, September 30, 2012

Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome Celebrates Its New York Aviation Roots

"Our next aircraft-because it's New York State Aviation Day-is the Curtiss Model D Pusher, built right here in Hammondsport, New York," announced Jim Hare on that hot, August 12, 2012, day, as the yellow biplane taxied across the lightly wind-swept grass field beneath a canvas brushed with dabs of cumulous at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome.
Recounting his numerous contributions, Jim concluded, "Glenn Curtiss-New York State's aviation hero!"
Yet, it was on this day that the aerodrome showcased many of New York's aviation contributions, celebrating roots that ultimately became its own.
"The relevance of this weekend is to showcase that portion of our collection which pays homage to New York State," said Neill Herman, Old Rhinebeck's Air Show President. "From Lindbergh's famous transatlantic flight to the contributions of Curtiss, New York-being a big trade capital at the time-played a major role as a hub of aviation development. Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is a focal point of tourism for New York State and we have a particular interest in showcasing New York's contributions."
Many of these "contributions," however, can be gleaned from the aircraft displayed in its museum buildings located across Norton Road from the airfield and up the hill.
The Thomas Model E Pusher, for instance, is one of them. Suspended from the ceiling of the Pioneer Building, this century-old design, sporting its fabric-covered sesqui biplane wings, dual-wheeled undercarriage, aft-mounted wooden propeller, and forward-protruding spruce skids appears as if it were making an approach to the movie set of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines.
Brainchild of W. T. Thomas, an Englishman who had emigrated to the US and established his own aircraft company in Bath, New York, with his brother, Oliver, it offers features that are traceable to those of Curtiss, with which he had initial experience in Hammondsport. Experimenting with his own Curtiss-like machine in 1908, W. T. Thomas produced the Model E Pusher during the winter of 1909 to 1910, and, piloted by Walter Johnson, it partook of exhibitions in 1911. A refined version appeared the following year, only a decade after the Wright Brothers had first flown at Kitty Hawk.
According to the sign under the aircraft in the Pioneer Building, "This aircraft is one of 12 manufactured by W. T. Thomas, Bath, New York. It was his second design and in November of 1912 an aircraft of this type established the two-place world's endurance record, flying for three hours, 52 minutes."
It hardly began that way.
"The Pusher was a gift from Owen Billman," said Jim Hare. "It was found in a barn up in central New York (and was once owned by pioneer pilot Earl Frits). The wings were being used to protect tomato plants from the cold."
Cole Palen, having been endowed with that elusively-defined ability to take the remaining atom of an airframe and transform it into a full-fledged flying machine, proceeded to do so with the Model E, repackaging scraps, parts, and pieces into a vehicle that would later take him aloft in his official "aircraft factory" normally designated a "living room."
But, part of that sixth sense hinged upon authenticity and nothing could have ensured it more than a personal visit with its builder, W. T. Thomas himself, who by then had been residing in Florida.
"He actually met Thomas in Florida and went down with Mike Lockhart, the first aerodrome kid here," continued Jim.
Beyond Cole's expectations, he was given access to Thomas's personal files, whose xeroxed copies enabled him to reproduce the airplane in Rhinebeck with redundant accuracy.
Yet, because of his insistence upon authenticity, the aircraft which took shape clearly reflected its Curtiss control-inspired lineage, itself powered by a 90-hp Curtiss OX-5 engine.
"(It was) an awkward machine to fly... because its controls did not follow the standard system," according to Gordon Bainbridge in his book, The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome (Exposition Press, 1977), and caused one "to reverse one's trained flight reflexes to control the ship." A wheel-mounted rocking post, for instance, actuated the dual-tailed rudders, while an aileron-connected seat enabled the pilot to bank. The throttle took the form of a foot pedal.
Although the wheel's forward and aft movement deflected the elevator and therefore provided the only semblance of conventional control, it resulted in "Cole confusion," according to Bainbridge, as he continually made the right inputs into the wrong controls and sustained two damage-producing, repair-requiring mishaps before he successfully surmounted the sky in another of his hand-to-air transformations.
After 15 minutes aloft, the Thomas Pusher announced its approach through the "throb of (its) laboring engine," again according to Bainbridge. "The sight was awe-inspiring as the sun danced momentarily on the great expanse of the biplane's varnished wings, and, as if etched against the clouds, the primitive craft... land(ed) like some huge predatory bird out of the past."
Although Cole had shared the construction and test flying process with his team of Palen Passion Followers, he had been particularly secretive about its purpose, which he initially only revealed as a flight from the aerodrome to New York.

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