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SW Aviator Feb/Mar 2001
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Wischful Thinking

by Jay Wischkaemper

While Washington, DC is the capital of our government, it was Philadelphia, PA that played host to the embryonic stages of the republic. It was in Philadelphia that the Declaration of Independence was penned. It was in the same room in Philadelphia where years later the constitution was composed. It was Philadelphia that for the first 10 years of the republic was the capital of our nation while the city of Washington was being built. In all my travels, I had never had an opportunity to visit Philadelphia until recently. I attended a company meeting there, and was able to visit Independence Hall, the site of those historic events. It gives you an eerie feeling to stand in the same room where Washington and Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and all the other patriots argued the details of how our democracy would work. To look at the desk where John Hancock placed his imposing signature on the Declaration of Independence. To know the personal danger in which they placed themselves to support a cause in which they believed, and yet a cause they could not be certain would prevail. It was a moving experience.

While on this trip, I took advantage of the opportunity to see another bit of history, not as far reaching, but history involving men who approached what they did with the same type of courage as those early Americans. Men who put their lives on the line for a cause they believed in. Men who many times did die for the dreams they had and the activity they loved.

Located a few miles north of Poughkeepsie, NY is the small town of Rhinebeck. I had heard of and read about the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome for years, and had always wanted to see it. Having never visited that particular part of New York, we started our trip a couple of days early and make the trek to Rhinebeck to witness the fruits of the dream of a man named Cole Palen.

Palen was an aircraft mechanic who did his training at Roosevelt field in New York. While training, he noticed nine old World War I planes sitting in a corner of a hangar. Several years later, he was told the planes were going to be auctioned, since the hangar was being torn down to make way for a shopping center. Palen raked up every dollar he could and submitted a bid. Much to his surprise, his was the winning bid. He moved the planes to his father-in-law’s farm and stored them in a barn, trying to figure out what he was going to do with them. As the years went by, he restored them all to flying condition. He was able to purchase a local farm for the back taxes. He hacked out a runway and began flying the old planes. Word got around that there was this nut flying old airplanes, and almost by accident, Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome was born.

Every weekend, the old planes are flown. As we fly in our modern, FAA certificated, proven, dependable designs, it’s easy to forget the contributions of those pioneers of aviation who went before us. The second oldest flyable airplane in existence, a Bleriot type 11, still flies occasionally. Built in 1909, this was the first plane to cross the English Channel. While that doesn’t seem much of a feat to us, to witness this overgrown box kite struggling through the air, one can understand what a brave, or foolhardy act it was for Louis Bleriot to make the attempt. Airframes were rudimentary, and engines even more so. Several of the planes boast rotary engines, where the entire engine rotates around a stationary crankshaft. The engines have two speeds. On and off. The Curtis Jenny was a quantum leap forward with its relatively dependable engine and docile handling. One of the two flying craft in existence is at Rhinebeck.

Many of the pioneers of aviation died piloting these fragile craft, and one only has to look at them up close to understand why the mortality experience was so high. Why did they do it? Not because they could foresee a time when jets would fly nonstop from New York to Tokyo in pressurized comfort. Not because they though aviation historians would revere them. In fact, if those who lost their lives could be resurrected and see the advances that have been made in aviation, it would be beyond anything they could ever have imagined.

They didn’t fly for the future. They flew for the moment. They flew for the same reasons we do today. Their machines may not have been as sophisticated, but their motives were the same. When they strapped themselves into those primitive machines and took wing, they did so because of the thrill it gave them, and while not oblivious to the dangers they faced, the thrill was worth the danger. Gratefully, those dangers have been minimized for us today, largely because of the lessons learned by those aviation pioneers.

Pioneers are products of history. Those men who met in Constitution Hall in 1776 did not meet with the idea that 250 years later, tourists would come by the thousands to pay respect to the room where they did their work. There was a job to be done, and they were a group of anxious traitors to the government of England who had determined they would do it. Those early aviation pioneers were also not enamored with the thought that some day thousands of people would gather at an old farm in the Hudson River Valley of New York to marvel at their airplanes, and the courage of the men who flew them. They took what they had, limited though it was, and did the best they could with it. The results of both are impressive.

I wonder what history will say of us?

Texas native Jay Wischkaemper is a successful MassMutual life insurance agent based in Lubbock, Texas. He is a long-time partner in a Bellanca Super Viking, which he uses for both business and pleasure. Jay is a Texas Tech alumni, where he earned a degree in public address and group communication.

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