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Meet Cole Palen

Cole and Rita Palen

Cole and Rita Palen

James Henry Cole Palen Jr.
(1925-1993)

Cole Palen, founder and curator of New York’s Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, passed away peacefully on December 8, 1993 shortly before his 68th birthday. With his passing the aviation world and the early aircraft preservation movement in particular lost not only a unique pilot and collector, but also a great character and showman.

Following his birth as James H. Palen Jr. on December 28, 1925 the Palen family left Pennsylvania to establish a new home and small poultry farm near Poughkeepsie, New York. As a child he developed an early fascination in aviation and delighted in building model aeroplanes when not dreaming of the wonders of flight. His own first flight was to come at the age of ten when he took a short hop in a New Standard biplane at the old Poughkeepsie Airport.

After graduation in 1944, Cole found himself in the United States Infantry just in time for The Battle of the Bulge. On returning to the U.S. he entered the Roosevelt Aviation School at Roosevelt Field, Long Island to train as a mechanic. Here he was thrilled to find that one of the hangars contained a small museum of World War I aircraft. He dreamed of one day owning his own unique airfield and flying the early aircraft as he felt they should be flown. Little did he realize that his dream would eventually become a reality.

In 1951 Roosevelt Field closed and plans were laid for a vast shopping center to be built on the site. Accordingly the W.W.I aircraft were put up for sale. The Smithsonian had already acquired three of the aircraft so Cole quickly bid his life savings for the remainder. Much to his surprise he found he was the proud owner of a SPAD XIII, Avro 504K, Curtiss Jenny, Standard J-l, Aeromarine 39B and Sopwith Snipe. Given thirty days to remove the aircraft, the story of how his new acquisitions were transported to upstate New York would make an epic tale in its own right! It took nine 200-mile round trips to move the aircraft back to the Palen family home where they were stored in abandoned chicken coops. Typical of the trials and tribulations experienced was the story that involved towing the fuselage from the Jenny behind Cole’s equally tired old car. When the combination reached the Whitestone Bridge the tires on the Jenny disintegrated. What Cole thought were well-inflated tires actually turned out to be solid wooden wheels with tire carcasses around them! Later, on reaching the suburb of Yonkers more difficulties were encountered when the wheels became jammed in active trolley tracks!

In 1959 Cole found a farm for sale near the picturesque village of Rhinebeck. This property included a small farmhouse in which an unsolved murder had taken place. Around this time Cole earned money through the rental of some of his aircraft to a film company in California that was filming the World War I movie, “Lafayette Escadrille” starring Tab Hunter. Between savings from his employment at Texaco as a mechanic and earnings from the film deal he was able to purchase the property by paying the back taxes that were owed on it. He cleared a runway and built makeshift hangars from scrapped materials with his bare hands and the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome was born.

Cole collected aircraft spanning from the period of the birth of aviation up to the start of World War II he restored them and flew them regularly, and where early original aircraft did not exist, accurate replicas powered by authentic engines were built. A sizable collection of veteran and vintage vehicles was also collected, nearly all in working order.

The first air show took place in 1960 to an assembled audience of approximately 25 people! Gradually word spread of the Palen magic, and shows were held regularly on the last Sunday of the summer months. As demand grew this was changed to the present format of a show every Saturday and Sunday from mid-June through mid-October.

Cole Palen as the Evil Black Baron of Rhinebeck

Cole Palen as the Evil Black Baron of Rhinebeck

The simple early shows led to a philosophy of not only showing the aircraft in their natural environment, but also providing a fun and entertaining day out for the whole family. From this the air show that Rhinebeck was to become famous for was developed. This included the zany melodrama featuring the daring Sir Percy Goodfellow doing battle with the Evil Black Baron for the hand of the lovely Trudy Truelove.

Marriage came late for in life for Cole Palen when on March 17, 1967 he married Rita Weidner. Rita took over and brought some order to the administrative side of things. She also brought order to the Palen household, and Cole was no longer allowed to overhaul rotary engines in his living room!

Early in 1993 Cole suffered a stroke. Looking to the future he decided to form the Rhinebeck Aerodrome Museum Foundation. The Foundation came into being during the course of the year under a Board of Directors and a special new foundation building was erected opposite the Pioneer, W.W.I and Lindbergh era buildings.

Following the end of the 1993 season Cole and Rita made their annual pilgrimage to their winter home in Florida, where Cole also maintained a workshop. Early that December Rita also suffered a slight stroke and was admitted to the hospital. It was at this time that Cole passed away in his sleep. Rita made an excellent recovery from her stroke and continued with her husband’s legacy until her passing on August 12 of 2002.

Thanks to Cole Palen’s foresight in setting up the Museum Foundation the shows will continue to take place every Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 PM throughout the summer months.

Cole Palen followed a dream and made it a reality. No task ever seemed too great. When faced with a mammoth restoration project his typical response would be “No problem, it’ll fly.” This would be followed by his raucous laugh. He got his biggest kicks at the end of each show seeing how much everyone (crowd and participants alike) had enjoyed it. Despite his showmanship Cole Palen was actually a very quiet, shy man. His passing marked the end of an era. All those involved with the Aerodrome over the years, myself included, feel privileged to have been a part of it.

Barry Dowsett

 

Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome founder Cole Palen discusses the history of the museum in his final interview, which was filmed in November 1993 by local Hudson Valley television station WTZA. This video also includes interviews with long-time Aerodrome pilots Dick King and Stan Segalla, as well as footage from the Aerodrome’s memorial airshow for Cole.

Related Articles:

Remembering Cole Palen 20 Years On (12/7/13)