A small grass air strip in New York’s Hudson Valley can boast of the world’s oldest airplane still flying. It set the record over the summer. There was no press release, no advertising, and very little word of mouth.
But, here it is in upstate New York. The oldest airplane in the world still flying.
All through the summer and fall of 2018, this 1909 French “Bleriot” airplane quietly made world history at a small grass air strip in New York State’s Hudson Valley.
“Right now this airplane is the oldest flying airplane in the entire world,” said Mark Mondello, Chief Mechanic in Volatie, NY. “Built in 1909, Bleriot 11. Right now it’s the oldest flying airplane in the entire world. That’s very significant for the Hudson Valley, New York, and the United States.”
Made of spindly wooden slats, wrapped in fabric, tightened by cables, the 1909 Bleriot 11 sports a single wicker stool, and stick in the cockpit. And rudimentary gauges for oil pressure, air speed and elevation, and gasoline. It was designed by and named for the first man to fly across the English Channel, Louis Bleriot. A propeller made of wood, attached to a 35 horsepower French Anzani engine whose bark is much bigger than its bite, according to the pilot who’s assigned these flights because he’s the lightest among the bunch at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome.
“It’s over a hundred year old airplane,” said Pilot Alex Jameison of Rhinebeck, NY. “The engine is tired. It doesn’t put out as much performance. And, we have 50 foot trees around the runway here. We show that it can fly and then we bring it back to the ground, just to keep it safe.”
This world-renowned airplane first arrived in the U.S. a few weeks after Bleriot made his record-setting Channel flight in a similar plane. It was purchased by beer brewery heir, Louis John Bergdoll, and flown in air shows around Philadelphia, New York, and Long Island until Bergdoll stored it away in the barn rafters of his country estate and disappeared from public life. He was embarrassed that his brother and fellow pilot, Grover Bergdoll, had become America’s most notorious draft dodger of World War I.
Then, in the late 1950’s, Cole Palen, founder of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, rescued the plane, refurbished it, and began its 60-year flight reign in the Hudson Valley.
Until now, the oldest airplane still flying has been another 1909 Bleriot 11 in England. However, it recently suffered some engine problems and has been out of flying commission until at least 2019, and possibly longer. So, with little fanfare until this report, this upstate New York airplane is now the oldest in the world still flying. And, given its past, that’s incredible.
It is the oldest airplane in the world still flying, but, just barely. A few feet off the ground and then back down to safety and security for a plane that is now priceless! Coincidentally, Bergdoll’s brother’s 1911 airplane was also rescued and restored in much the same way as this one. It’s now in a Philadelphia museum as the last Wright Brothers airplane to fly, and the most original undamaged Wright Brothers airplane in existence today.
So, will New York’s world-record-setting vintage airplane remain flying or will it too be stored away in a museum to save forever?
“You know, I think there are a dozen museums or more that would be happy to take it off our hands,” said Mondello. “But, we simply won’t let them. And, I don’t think you could write a check big enough to take it from the collection.”
“Words can’t describe what an honor it is to fly this airplane. Even a few inches off the ground, up and down the runway here,” said Jameison. “But, getting to fly this, the oldest flying airplane in the country, is an incredible honor.”
The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is closed for the winter but, next summer, they fully expect to have the Old Bleriot back in the air.
The British Museum is trying to get their plane re-certified but it could take a long time, if at all.