Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome founder James H. C. (Cole) Palen was an unique and complex individual. He was a visionary, accomplished pilot, showman, lover of history and an indomitable spirit.
He was born in Pennsylvania on December of 1925 and his family soon moved to a poultry farm near Poughkeepsie, NY, under the traffic pattern of the local airport. He grew up watching the great planes of the Golden Age overhead and building stick and tissue models. He eventually ventured to the airport and rode in a New Standard D-25, a plane in which he would introduce thousands to the thrill of the open cockpit decades later.
Cole served in the infantry during WWII and returned to pursue his love of aviation. While taking flight and mechanic training at Roosevelt Field on Long Island he discovered the school’s museum–about to be disbanded to make way for a shopping center. He bid on several WWI machines and to his surprise was awarded six of them. Nine, eventful, 200-mile round trips, found the collection in the family’s chicken coups, where the rebuilding would begin.
While Cole worked at Texaco Corporation to earn restoration funds, the collection began to slowly be rebuilt and he conducted flights at Stormville Airport, much to the delight of the inmates in the adjoining prison. One forced landing found him in the prison vegetable garden. Word began to spread about his activities and some movie work on “Lafayette Escadrille” supplemented his salary to the point where he could purchase an abandoned farm in northern Dutchess County for back taxes.
With a small group of friends and followers, the runway for the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome was hewn from three rocky fields and hangars built from rough lumber. And, he was constantly collecting–old airplanes, automobiles and memorabilia. By 1960 enough onlookers were turning up that Cole began to fly “demonstrations” which grew into the airshows still being flown today. The shows combined his love of early aviation with his innate showmanship. While the planes were always the stars, Cole’s cast of characters, Sir Percy, Trudy Truelove and the Evil Black Baron (Cole’s alter-ego) brought them alive in a manic plotline. Shows at other locations added income, but Rhinebeck was home. As funds were available Museum buildings went up and more hangars were added.
In 1967, Cole married Rita Weidner, who finally brought business sense and organization to the Aerodrome. As one friend put it, “It changed his life, Palen was losing less money.” With Rita, Cole was able to add staff, increase the collection and plan for the future. The collection, the shows and the world-wide reputation of the Aerodrome grew.
In 1993 Cole suffered a stroke following surgery, ending his flying, but not his determination. To assure the Aerodrome’s future, he founded The Rhinebeck Aerodrome Foundation. He and Rita returned to their winter headquarters in Florida where he died peacefully in his sleep. Rita continued the legacy until her death in 2002. Today, The Rhinebeck Aerodrome Museum honors and continues their dream.