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 tenga 飛機杯 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 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.