Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Rhinebeck, New York, houses one of the finest collections of old aircraft in America. The aerodrome’s most impressive offering is its extraordinary group of World War I fighters. Some are original, and others are scrupulous reconstructions based on the old plans and powered by engines that have been retrieved after years of neglect. They are gaunu crude machines, made of wood and canvas, and it is difficult to imagine that, in the living memory of a great many people, they were formidable instruments of destruction. It is harder still to imagine when they are trundled out for the Rhinebeck Aerodrome’s air show on summer Sundays. For Rhinebeck Aerodrome, through some odd calculation of what its spectators will find diverting, uses the planes for humorous effect.
The aerodrome is nicely set up, and spectators settle themselves on bleachers along a well-cropped grass airstrip while the wooden propellers tick over and blue clouds of exhaust and castor oil (the traditional aviationengine lubricant) blow across the field. Then a man in a funny hat takes his place in a low observation tower, switches on a loudspeaker system, and begins to talk into a microphone. He talks without interruption throughout the rest of the show. What he says is pretty much what Henry James called genial twaddle. There is some chuckling about the weather, some throwaway historical background, and the alarming announcement that the planes are going to fly in concert with a “comedy show.” Sure enough. Comical doughboys run around the field in the soup-bowl helmets of the First World War, girls in bloomers (“Holy mackerel, look at those mamzelles!”) run out of plywood buildings bearing signs like “Der Sausage Factory,” and the “Black Baron” minces around in huge jodhpurs. Keystone Kops zip out of the trees in a dilapidated Buick, and a lingerie shop disgorges underwear upon the detonation of an ersatz bomb. In all this sophomoric hilarity one becomes numb to the airplanes, which without the giggling announcer and the frantic pageant on the field wouldn’t look funny at all.
The legendary Sopwith Camel, for instance, is anything but quaint. It is a chunky, businesslike plane that jumps into the air and climbs, shuddering in the wind, at an impressive rate. Behind it a British FE -8 pusher makes a somewhat less striking takeoff but flies steadily enough. The FE-8 wasn’t much of a plane by World War i combat standards; one squadron lost all of theirs in a few weeks under the guns of the German Fokkers. The men who flew them sometimes had to go out three times a day. They usually saw one or more of their fellows go down. The ordeal was none the less painful for its participants because they flew slow, primitive airplanes.
Those planes were not easy to fly, but the pilots at Rhinebeck toss them around the sky with an easy, graceful skill that belies the essential difficulties of the craft. And all the time they are in the air, the intrusive announcer and the vaudeville on the ground work to make them just another funny thing.
It is, of course, a most human impulse to mock the immediate past, especially in so accelerated an era as ours. Our machinery is very sophisticated indeed, and our problems are immediate. Making the World Safe For Democracy now seems a jejune concept to die for, and those who did die for it must have been pretty simple and foolish after all. Of course they were no more simple or foolish than we are.
Rhinebeck Aerodrome is an excellent aviation museum, filled with planes that have been kept up by dint of a great deal of care and an enormous amount of research, and it is sad that the museum’s chief event seems to be devoted to demeaning the efforts of the men who first flew the planes, and demeaning them for no better reason than a few laughs and threedollars-a-head admission.