Of course, the most desirable possession any World War I hobbyist can have is a plane. According to a recent count taken by Professor Dean H. Obrecht and Leonard E. Opdycke of Rochester, N.Y., there are 70 authentically restored World War I planes in the U.S. today, 35 of them in flying condition. In addition, there are 44 replicas, which do not rank as high in the scheme of values as do restorations. If the plane is almost exactly as it was the day it left the factory or the day it arrived at the front, it is incomparably desirable. Restoration or replica, it is important to have an original engine. "The airplane can always be built," explains Cole Palen, a prominent collector, "but building the engine is something else again."
It is perfectly all right for a licensed pilot to fly a World War I plane today as long, of course, as the plane can pass Federal Aviation Agency inspection. (One collector was irked when an FAA inspector grounded his Spad because of rents in the original linen wing skin. "I thought it was all right," the collector said, "but he was new, and I guess he was afraid.")
Aloft, World War I planes are prohibited from flying over cities and villages or any open area of assembly. Though this would tend to indicate some doubt about the durability of the planes, pilots say that with the necessary maintenance the planes hold up reasonably well. In fact, many of the planes can outclimb and outdive light planes of comparable size today. A Spad, for instance, can climb 1,000 to 1,200 feet a minute, a respectable figure for almost any single-engine private plane. However, there are some problems, mainly in landing. The landing gear was built for grass, and a pilot who alights on concrete may as well write off the plane. A Spad is especially difficult to land because of its built-in urge to ground-loop. The Spad has too much weight in the tail, 333 pounds to be exact, and when it touches down in the classic three-point position, it shows a compulsive urge to go down the field backward instead of forward.
There are three major collections of World War I planes in the U.S. The largest, 45 planes in all, belongs to Paul Mantz, three-time Bendix trophy winner and stuntman (he was the first in Hollywood to fly through an open hangar), who keeps the fleet on hand for the movies. (Counting all types of aircraft, Mantz once owned 600 planes, ranking just ahead of Nationalist China as an air power.) Alas, some purists look down upon Mantz's collection. "He cuts up his planes a lot," says Hugh Wynne, "and doesn't worry much about preserving the original design. For example, he has a Nieuport with a couple of feet clipped off the end of each wing. I don't know the engineering principle behind the alteration, but I guess it was done to get added speed for racing. Then, too, he has a Fokker D-VII that looks all right outside but doesn't have the original engine. We aren't lotus eaters on this subject, you understand, but we just feel that Mantz's collection is not outstanding from a historical standpoint."
Wynne has more respect for the collection of Frank Tallman, also a stunt pilot. Tallman, 42, whose father flew for the Navy in France, has been collecting World War I planes for 15 years, and he now has six of them. The prize of the collection is a Pfalz D-XII (the one Riverside used in its recording). Unfortunately, he wrecked it at Wright-Patterson in June after the engine stalled at 400 feet. He ground-looped on landing and smashed the lower right wing and landing gear. Tallman was unhurt. A dashing, mustachioed chap, Tallman revels in wearing riding boots, breeches and a white silk scarf. "When he gets dressed up," an acquaintance remarks, "he looks like G-8 for sure."
In the East the outstanding collection belongs to Cole Palen, 35, an aviation mechanic. While learning his trade at Roosevelt Field, Long Island, Palen became enamored of half a dozen World War I planes on exhibit in the field's museum. When the field had to make way for, of all things, a shopping center, he put in a successful bid for the planes. "It wasn't much," he says, "but it was every cent I had at the time." A few years ago he bought a 100-acre farm outside Rhinebeck, N.Y., cleared a runway through pastures and began building the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, a replica of a World War I base in France. To raise money for its construction he has flown his planes at air shows all over the country, and he recently picked up a substantial sum exhibiting his Bl�riot XI for a Wings brassiere advertisement.
Though much work remains, the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is open to the public for a modest admission charge. Palen has landscaped the grounds so that visiting cars are hidden behind an embankment, the only cars out in the open being a 1917 Maxwell truck and a 1910 Sears auto buggy. "I want to preserve the spirit of a World War I aerodrome," he says. The corrugated hangar is decorated with World War I posters admonishing the viewer to halt the Hun by buying Liberty bonds. Visitors are free to inspect the planes. The most colorful is a Fokker D-VII rendered in a mottled camouflage pattern with a red-and-white polka dot squadron designation on the tail. Palen, decked out in riding trousers, scarf, helmet and goggles, acts as guide. As an added touch, a white handkerchief trails from the top of his helmet. "That's to wipe the oil off the goggles," he explains.
A lot of color
The tour over, some visitors are permitted to clamber into the cockpit of a Nieuport 28 and try out the controls. The plane is tied down, but there is a great sense of exhilaration as Palen starts the engine. There is even more if the engine happens to catch fire, which it is prone to do. "That adds a lot of color," says Palen, eyes aglitter. "In fact, it's got to the point where we might get it on fire on purpose."