By Zac Yates
July 6, 2024
In January 2024 Clay Hammond was announced as the new president of the board running the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome (ORA) in upstate New York. Founded by Cole Palen nearly 60 years ago, the aerodrome is world-famous for its collection of pre-World War II aircraft, many of which fly at weekend airshows throughout the summer months.
Hammond is literally a child of Old Rhinebeck for his father Bill served as Chief Pilot and Director for many years under Cole Palen; his sister Charlotte played the perpetual damsel in distress Trudy Truelove during the airshow’s famous melodramas; and Clay himself took his first airplane ride when he was just five weeks old on his mom’s lap in the family J-3 Cub, flying out of the famous aerodrome. He describes his childhood as “memorable beyond words.”
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Proudly wearing his khaki pilot’s shirt and helmet to look the part on airshow day, Clay Hammond (aged 7 or 8) stands in front of the collection’s Curtiss Jenny. [Photo via Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome]
“Building army forts in the woods behind the hangars, climbing trees to load airshow pyro with my dad, playing Dogfight boardgame in real life sitting in cockpits in the hangars…my buddy in one of the other planes. Ranging up and down the flightline on airshow days. Flying in the shows with dad sometimes. Hearing Cole Palen’s infectious laugh from halfway across the airfield. Dropping water balloons on unsuspecting ground crew as we did the Balloon Burst act on Saturdays. Winter ski flying in dad’s J-3 and we’d go land on the Hudson. Birthday parties there, school field trips there, and getting dropped off by the bus at the shop there. It wasn’t a playground…it was home.”
With this background it’s not surprising Hammond became an ORA pilot and has flown many of the aircraft in this unique collection. But asking him to choose a particular mount as his favorite is like asking him to choose a favorite child.  He related, “I have more overall time in the New Standard D-25 than any other aircraft in my whole logbook…I enjoy wearing that airplane like a very comfortable old leather glove. [The] Albatros D.Va is a sweet flying warfighter that has very few bad habits. My personal Davis D1W is based there as well and is a pinnacle aircraft of the roaring golden age of aviation and a dream to fly. Dad’s Travel Air Speedwing also. [The] Fokker D.VII and the Triplane just because of their reputations. The Ryan NYP I won’t say is a favorite…it is very unique in its handling qualities and operations, but it is certainly the most memorable and to me the most famous of the bunch. When thinking about it I realize that I’d like to fly them all someday, and hopefully will.”
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Hammond, aged four, stands in front of New Standard D-25 N19157 in the fall/winter of 1982. Today he has more stick time in this airframe than any other type in his logbook. [Photo via Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome]
In addition to flying, Hammond has taken many roles behind the scenes including a tenure as vice-president of the ORA board. Having been elected president he feels “a great deal of appreciation and thanks to those who saw me as a worthy fit. And a lot of respect for those who have come before me and have done the hard work to put the Aerodrome in a good place.
“Our biggest challenge the past few years has been the weather and our dependence on airshows for the majority of our organization’s revenue. Continued efforts are being made to diversify our income to help insulate from bad weather and its effects on flying. Adding value to the museum experience so that it continues to be a destination in and of itself. Film and print media opportunities (there is a vibrant film industry right here in the Hudson valley which is great). And one of the largest obstacles, but one that is core to our purpose and mission, is keeping these 75-100+ year old aircraft airworthy and operating so that they may be seen and experienced in their native environment…the sky!”  Hammond said.
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Clay Hammond’s Davis D-1-W — one of his favorite aircraft to fly — follows the ORA SPAD replica to make a unique formation. [Photo by Warren W. Disbrow via Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome]
“Through continued philanthropic giving we have been experiencing a renaissance in our infrastructure and facility. This continues in 2024 with additional building enhancements and upgrades. In doing so we are providing better protection, display capability, and security for the priceless collection of aircraft, vehicles, and artifacts…while also improving working conditions for our volunteers and employees as well as a more pleasant visit for the public. We will continue to build out and improve our educational outreach, adding programs and opportunities for STEM learning. Our own internal and organic youth enrichment continues to become more formalized and outward reaching as well!  Just last year we added a new aircraft to our scenic flight tours fleet, a Stinson SM-1 Detroiter, which will allow us to build out the vintage aircraft rides even more providing new and fresh flying opportunities for the public.”
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The newest WWI fighter to join ORA, the Fokker D.VI, in flight over upstate New York. [Photo by Carol Hammond]
Away from ORA Hammond’s profession sees him specializing in aircraft sales, ferry and delivery of aircraft new and old. Around 2009 he was tasked with delivering a WACO YMF-5 from Mark Lightsey’s restoration shop at Flabob in Riverside, California to its new home with the late Ron Alexander at Atlanta’s Peachstate Airfield. He decided to make the trip in only two days, just to see what it was like to fly a Bendix Race.
Hammond recalled, “It was one of the newer Wacos built in 1986, had the long range tanks built into the wing, so like 80+ gallons total. You could drone along for a few hours making good time. I launched at sunrise from Flabob on a Tuesday and just kept going all day headed east through the desert. Quick turns for fuel and ate on the run. Landed that first night right at dark in Tucumcari, New Mexico where I knew there was always an open front hangar and an airport crew car for transient pilots. Launched again first light the next day and landed there on the south side of Atlanta right at dusk on Wednesday evening on the second day of the trip. Had great weather the whole way and that made it easy. The Bendix racers would have droned on into the dark and the YMF had full lights for night flight, but I didn’t want to bend Ron’s Waco!”
While he’s ostensibly at the helm of ORA, Hammond is quick to point out the ongoing success of the site is not down to any one person.  “The Aerodrome is an incredibly unique place, and it works because of the hard work and dedication of Cole Palen along with his merry band of volunteers and staff during all those early years. Palen flew west and left this world all too soon, but A LOT of that merry band is still with us and still with the Aerodrome helping to provide its foundation. Add to that our complement of new blood, individuals and families that have found their way to ORA in the proceeding three decades and make the organization thrive and grow. We try to do what Cole always did, which is show these airplanes, vehicles, and ephemera in a way that you cannot do within the cold granite, concrete and steel halls of a museum building in the city. And what he built is even more so a monument to an individual’s love and dedication for learning, experiencing, and passing on the craft as much as it is to seeing the airplanes fly. Those of us who knew Cole Palen miss him, and those who never had the chance miss having the opportunity. That says a lot about a man. And what says even more is that his personal monument has successfully transitioned into a public institution where we can continue to provide education and entertainment to the public, while passing on the craft to new generations of staff and volunteers.
“It’s all very potent and exhilarating, and I consider myself privileged to be at the head of it.”