We continue our Spotlight about HBO filming their TV series, The Plot Against America at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome here in Dutchess County.
With The Traveling Wilburys playing in the background of his shop, our own Dawn Hopper, Director of Tour & Travel, continues her interview with Ken Cassens, the mechanic at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome who hand-built the Spirit of St. Louis replica.
Spirit of St. Louis cockpit
You’re a veteran pilot, as well as, a mechanic at the Aerodrome. When did your interest in Charles Lindbergh and aviation begin?
In my youth, the first Lindbergh book I read was his biography We. The first line in the book is “I was born in Detroit, Michigan on Feb 4th, 1902”. And that struck a cord with me because I was born on February 4th. As a teenager, I built model planes of the Spirit. In 1964, I got my private pilot’s license but I actually started flying planes a lot earlier. I used to hang out a C plane base in Dobbs Ferry so I was 10 years old and I was pumpin’ gas and washing planes, and they started giving me flying lessons even though I couldn’t solo until I was 16. In 1992, I started working full time at the Aerodrome for Cole Palen.
What convinced Lindbergh he could attempt a transatlantic flight?
The engine chosen for the Spirit was a 200 horse-power Wright J5 Whirlwind. When Lindbergh saw it could run on the ground for 150 hours straight, he was motivated and confident it could make it across the Atlantic.
What were Lindbergh’s challenges for the flight?
Lack of sleep is the biggest concern for a long flight like that. They were waiting on weather. He had a routine that he would go to the hotel at night to sleep, get up the next day and check the weather. One normal day the forecast was not good for next morning so they made plans to see a Broadway show in New York City but on the way when he checked, the weather looked good for takeoff the next morning, so he canceled his plans. But he couldn’t get any sleep that night.
He got up at about 3:00am the next morning and headed for Roosevelt Airfield. He took off at 7:58am. About two hours into his flight, he knew he was in trouble. He had no caffeine, just water and a couple of sandwiches. For those 33 ½ hours, he basically willed himself awake with the fear of dying by crashing into the ocean. He flew to Paris without a hitch despite the fact he had gone 60 hours without any sleep.
Your replica of the Spirit of St. Louis is considered the most authentic flying replica anywhere. What challenges did you face building it for accuracy?
There were no plans published, however, the Ryan Aeronautical Library had a set of construction drawings by draftsman Ed Murrow but those turned out to be inaccurate. We gleaned a lot of information from photographs but the drawings we had didn’t offer much detail of the layout of the interior and the cockpit.
Cole Palen who started the Aerodrome always had a good relationship with the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian in D.C., where the Lindbergh’s original plane is on display suspended from the ceiling. The museum knew I was building a replica and invited me to get a closer look. They put me up in a cherry picker, and I was able to get photographs and measurements of the plane. The Smithsonian actually donated a couple of instruments from their collection that we were missing.
How long did it take to build and when was the aircraft’s first flight at the Aerodorme?
The entire project took 11 years of part-time work to complete. I first flew the plane in December 2015. The public debut flight was at the Aerodrome on May 21, 2016, which was the 89th anniversary of Lindbergh’s flight.
Can you describe what it is like to fly the Spirit that you built?
You don’t think of all the things that really could go wrong but they are in the back of your mind. You have a job to do and you do it. With the Spirit, it’s kind of a challenge because it’s a little different then your ordinary airplane. You’re concentrating on what the plane is telling ya’ and how you’re gonna react to it. With the Spirit sometimes it gets into a turn and its very unstable, so you have to constantly maintain a balance on it. It’s very sensitive to wind conditions, and because it’s an air-cooled engine, you don’t want to fly it on a hot day. Actually, the airplane flew a lot better than I thought it would. The Spirit is on display during the airshows and we always fly under optimum conditions.
The Plot Against America is now streaming on HBO.
Visit the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome next season and see Ken fly the Spirit of St. Louis replica for yourself. For more information visit www.oldrhinebeck.org.
To read Part I, an interview with the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome's Air Show & Events Manager, Stew Sommerville, click here.
Click above to view video on YouTube.