This must be how it feels to go back in time.
We’re just two hours north of New York City. Yet the train from Grand Central deposits you in an entirely different world from the concrete jungle – a place of rolling hills and chocolate-box towns lining the banks of the wide slick of blue that’s the Hudson River.
And if it’s another world on the ground, it’s another universe from the sky, which I’m experiencing from the passenger seat of a biplane built in 1929.
The Hudson Valley — the chi-chi escape of choice for New Yorkers in the know — is a throwback to the good old days, with retro stores and olde-worlde villages. But the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is something else. Founded in 1959 by Cole Palen, a Second World War pilot and aircraft fanatic, it’s a living museum in the true sense of the word.
There are three huge hangars, filled with historical planes (a Caudron G.III that was the first to fly over the Andes with a female pilot, a Bleriot XI from 1909 that made it across the English Channel and a replica of the Wright Brothers’ 1903 Flyer, for starters); but there are regular airshows, volunteers dressed in Lindbergh-era clothes, vintage Fords ferrying people between the museum and the airfield, and, of course, the biplane rides – or Hudson Valley Air Tours as they call them.
“Keep your arms inside the plane,” warns our pilot, Clay, who’s been volunteering at the aerodrome for 40 years, and whose brother and father flew here before him. “And don’t stick your camera out over the side – you’ll lose it.” No selfies, then – what a mercy.
Our plane, a New Standard D-25, was built in 1929. It’s a “barnstorming” aircraft, built to show off in flying circuses, but easy to use – a thought I’m clutching onto as we make our way towards the plane. We clamber over the wing to get in, as Clay hands us leather flying caps and old-school goggles.
My heart’s in my mouth as we judder down the grassy runway for take-off – did I mention, I yell at Clay, that I’m a nervous flyer? But then the engine’s growling and we’re lurching along the grass, faster and faster until we’re off – and then we’re up. And all my fear disappears as I take in the magical view below.
I’d no idea it was so green. There are swathes of fields, interrupted only by the small homesteads that farm them. There are trees – thick forest, hills carpeted with dark foliage – as far as the eye can see, and the wide river glistening in the distance. We swoop over the hamlet of Rhinecliff and the railway platform I was standing beside earlier today, and circle over the river, named after English seafarer Henry Hudson, who first sailed up it in 1609. Beyond are more woods, and the huge Catskills mountain range, stalking towards the horizon.
We’re cruising at 1,000ft here: high enough for a panoramic view, low enough to take in the details, and fast enough — about 95mph — to feel the full force of the wind slapping into our faces. It’s more exhilarating than I could ever have imagined. And it only adds to the excitement that I’m dressed like Biggles.
After looping back around the river, over the forest and back down onto the grassy airfield, we watch another plane take off. The pilot is flying solo, his long white beard accompanied by a flowing white scarf, practising his manoeuvres for an upcoming airshow. The plane heads almost vertically up, loops the loop, and fakes a freefall before coming back into land. Soon I’ll have to return to the 21st century, I think, as Clay drives me back to the museum in a Model T Ford. But right now, my mind’s fixed on these magnificent men in their flying machines.