Pioneer Aircraft Day at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome
The object appearing in the sky on the last hot, but dry, Saturday in August, increased in size, revealing a jet-black fuselage, a sputtering propeller, and two red, fabric-covered wings. The scene, reminiscent of the 1920s, should have long faded with my grandparents.
Passing over the south end of the grass-covered field marking Cole Palen’s Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, the aircraft overflew the fence-lined fleet of mostly biplanes which stood poised to perform in its “History of Flight” airshow, as they sagami had for more than half a century. But three particularly frail designs, appearing as if they had just crossed the line between the movie, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, and reality took center stage, directly across from the hamburger and fried onion aroma emitting Aerodrome Canteen grill. They constituted Old Rhinebeck’s “pioneer”-or very earliest-airframes, and would provide the day’s post-show focus, since today marked its annual Pioneer Aircraft Day.
As designs, they represented the third development phase of aviation’s technological climb.
The first, of course, can be represented by the Wright Brothers, who conquered controlled, powered, heavier-than-air flight on the sands of Kill Devil Hills in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903, primarily because they had embarked on a course of systematic solutions to the obstacles of aerial flight-namely, lift, propulsion, and control. The latter, subdivided into the three axes of lateral, longitudinal, and vertical, is what had enabled them to achieve “sustained” flight-as opposed to the myriad of other brief, but abruptly-ending attempts.
Trial and error, leading to numerous aircraft configurations, characterized the second phase, during which time inventors found their own paths to the Wright Brothers’ tri-axis control system. As a result, initial successes were few and fleeting.
Alberto Santos-Dumont’s 14bis biplane, for instance-powered by a 50-hp, rear fuselage-mounted Antoinette engine and sporting a boxkite wing with considerable dihedral, made a short, 197-foot hop on October 23, 1906 and is thus credited with having made Europe’s first powered flight.
These aeronauts, like Santos-Dumont himself, took initial ideas and transferred them into physical aircraft, resulting in numerous configurations regarding the number of wings, powerplant attachment points, and banking mechanisms.
Nevertheless, aeronautical science, expressed by the aircraft which properly employed it, matured.
On October 26, 1907, for example, the Voisin-Farman I, combining a Wright Brothers-type biplane with a forward, dual-surface elevator and boxkite tail, and powered by the 50-hp Antoinette, won the Archdeacon Cup for its 2,530-foot flight. Unofficially covering 3,380 feet in one minute, 14 seconds the following November 7, it became the first European attempt to exceed the Wrights’ duration-by 15 seconds.
The Aerial Experiment Association, founded by Dr. Alexander Graham Bell and his wife and quickly joined by Glenn Curtiss, targeted aerial flight in the post-Wright Brothers United States with an aileron-equipped, bowed-wing biplane sporting both a forward elevator and an aft, horizontal and vertical tail, dubbed “June Bug,” which won the Scientific American magazine’s prize for the first public demonstration of a flight to exceed one kilometer on July 4, 1908. The controversial event, disputed by the Wrights-who themselves had conducted all of their early experiments without witnesses-had covered the 5,090-foot distance in one minute, 42 seconds at a 39-mph airspeed.