Today, I walk through a mirror into the past. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Sometimes I really get caught off guard. Last week, my wife and I were motoring up New York's highway 9, when we saw a sign on a side road with the words Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome. I should've recognized the name. I didn't, but we wheeled off the highway anyway.
We found three rusty old hangers off in the woods -- probably some farmer displaying his old Piper Cub. I paid our ten dollars, expecting nothing. Silly me! We opened the door, and found ourselves in the finest, most extensive, collection of really early aircraft we'd ever seen. This was Aladdin's cave.
We were seeing replicas, originals, and mixtures of both -- like whole airplanes rebuilt around an original engine. The big air museums seldom have even a few of these planes; but this went on and on. The originals included a 1911 Bleriot and a 1915 Nieuport 10. From 1917 alone they had three little-known originals: a Thomas Morse, a Pigeon Fraser, and a Morane. Many of the planes could only be replicas since the originals were one-of-a-kind, now lost forever. Many old production models have also perished completely. No original Fokker Triplane survives.
Almost all the airplanes are airworthy. Originals and replicas alike stay in the best possible condition when human beings trust their lives to them in the air.
So, on this quiet sunny afternoon, I happen across two young men working on a replica of a Caudron G.3 scout plane, used early in WW-I. I stutter my amazement that such a thing might exist in the 21st century. They finish polishing its propeller, then lead me off to more hangers beside the grassy flight strip.
One holds a Fokker Triplane and Fokker D-VII, and they begin describing how each handles in the air. Can you imagine how that felt -- two people who might've been my grandsons, sounding like my father recalling his experiences flying in WW-I?
Another hanger held a replica of the Spirit of St. Louis, just being finished. The man slides the periscope out to show how Lindbergh was able to see forward from his tomb-like cockpit.
My own personal favorite is the 1913 Deperdussin racing plane. A sleek monoplane, whose design was far ahead of its time, it set a speed record of 125 miles an hour. When war began, its designers gave France the best fighter in the war, the Model VIII SPAD. Yet, if you didn't know, you'd think this old racing plane was built afterward -- it looks so totally modern.
Before I leave I speak with an 86-year-old gentleman who clearly loves these machines. "Did you fly," I ask him. He looks at me and says, "Still do." "When did you first fly," I ask. "1930," he tells me, "I was only ten, but things were looser then."
I look at this man who flew before I was born, flew in a world were things were indeed "looser;" and I know that I've truly been granted a glimpse of the primordial place where it all began.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
I'm grateful to Jen McGrane, John Walsh, Casey McClarnon, and Bill Poyphress, all of whom work with the Aerodrome, and all of whom were most generous with their time and knowledge.
The sound effects in the audio for this episode are authentic, by the way. The first is stock footage of a Fokker Triplane idling on the ground, the one in the middle is the Rhinebeck Aerodrome's Bleriot XI in flight, and the closing sound is its 1917 Morane A-1 taking off.
1917 Morane A-1 (original)
Fokker Dr.1, Triplane (replica)
1913-1918 Caudron G.3 (replica)
The Spirit of St. Louis (replica under construction)
1913 Deperdussin racing plane
(all photos by J. H. Lienhard)