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Still a barnstormer at 75 (this was a few years ago!)
By Rinker Buck, The Hartford Courant
If there's anything Stanley Segalla knows, it's how to get rid of a headache.
Every couple of weeks, when the tall, tanned, retired contractor from Canaan, Conn., gets a real banger drives to the local airport, pulls his Decathlon sport plane out of its hangar, hits the starter button and rumbles off the strip.
At 4,000 feet over a local swamp, Segalla rolls the plane over on its back and hangs by his safety straps for five or six minutes.
Flying inverted, Segalla gazes down on an upside-down Twin Lakes, with the pastel Winslow Homer clouds scudding the Berkshire hills all around, and then he rolls the plane back to straight and level flight.
If his headache isn't gone, Segalla rolls back over. The second time, for sure, his headache is gone.
Segalla has earned his right to eccentric headache cures. For several years now he has enjoyed a unique distinction on the busy Northeast air show circuit that reaches its height this time every summer. At 75, with almost a half century and 22,000 hours of flying under his belt, Segalla is believed to be America's oldest performing air show pilot, the dean of the weekend barnstormers who live to delight the crowds.
Along the way, Segalla has cultivated an image as a philosopher-king of the air, a colorful dispenser of advice about life with a minor cult status. He's a geezer who's discovered the secret of youth.
"If it wasn't for flying, jeepers, I don't think I'd be alive today," Segalla says. "I've been disgusted with everything, just like everybody else -- working too hard all week, thinking about my kids, dealing with the house. I honestly don't think my body could have taken all this if I didn't go up every couple of days and pull a hammerhead and some Cuban Eights."
Pilots who appreciate watching a great airman squeeze every conceivable ounce of energy out of a plane have been known to divert hundreds of miles just to watch Segalla at work. His claim to fame is the Cub Comedy Act that he performs every Sunday afternoon during the summer at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in upstate New York, where Segalla has been a regular since 1958.
Segalla begins his stock show by wandering out in front of the crowd in faded and torn farmer's dungarees and an old floppy straw hat. "Hey, get that old farmer off the runway!" the show announcer barks.
Segalla wanders away, then returns for some more antics until the exasperated announcer orders one of the pilots to load that "crazy farmer" into a yellow Piper Cub and fly him home. When the pilot momentarily hops out of the Cub to check a part on the tail, old Stanley gooses the throttle, wiggles the rudder and careens wildly down the runway, his straw hat blowing off onto the grass as the Cub lifts off.
About half of the audience is taken in and gasps with horror; the other half knows that Stanley is just up to his old tricks. It's a glorious, fluid display of stick and throttle coordination after that.
At the larger shows, even pilots from the Navy's Blue Angels or the Air Force's Thunderbirds have been known to push through to the front of the crowds and watch in awe as Segalla dives and yaws through his crazy routine.
After disappearing below the tree line for almost a minute, Segalla's bright yellow Cub reappears over the field, dragging an old nylon clothesline festooned with underwear and plaid shirts. Segalla hauls in the line, comes back opposite the crowd and pulls straight up and over onto his back for a loop and flies the plane sideways. If the breeze is strong enough Segalla yaws the Cub sideways into the wind and flies backward, spins several times and rolls -- he is the only pilot who can actually get a full roll out of a Cub -- and climbs to 1,000 feet and shuts off the engine.
Raking back down over the trees with the propeller stopped, Segalla slips down for a landing and coasts to a stop before the crowd, reaching out of his cockpit as he goes by to retrieve his floppy hat.
The crowd roars and cheers, flocking around Segalla afterward for his autograph. Segalla insists that it's a mistake to regard what he does as merely an air show act -- it's his personal 12-step program for health, a metaphor for life. Success, Segalla believes, belongs to those who pick something unique and never vary their routine.
"I never change my act," Segalla says. "I do the same maneuvers, from the same height, in the same order every time. I only vary for the wind. That way I always know what the plane will do."
To the crowd below, a good air show routine seems effortlessly performed, but there's a lot more precision to it than people think. Federal aviation rules call for established "setbacks" of 250 feet from the runway on takeoff and 500 feet from the crowd for maneuvers, requiring precise reverses as the pilots turn back to get over the airport again. Once a year, Segalla's act has to be observed and recertified by a licensed aerobatics examiner.
There's a precision, too, a complementary balance between exercise and work, to Segalla's life. In his 50s, Segalla adopted a regimen of careful eating, regular workouts on a stationary bike and long walks to keep him fit for flying. Regular flying, he's convinced, keeps him fit for his stationary bike. Having many life changes is another Segalla creed.
"Nobody should stay at the same job or business in a single lifetime," he says. "You should change jobs at least three times. I started in lawn mowing, then I built a lawn mower repair shop, and then went into construction. Meanwhile, Saturdays and Sundays, I had something else to look forward to -- flying. Somehow it's relaxing to use all these different parts of your body and mind."
Air show flying is a notoriously dangerous occupation, and over the years Segalla has seen seven or eight pilots killed, many of them close friends.
"I don't let that affect me," Segalla says. "Every one of those crashes involved obvious pilot error." The only time Segalla was hurt was at an air show in Buffalo, when he fell off a milk crate while washing his plane, breaking a hip.
But it was all worth it, Segalla says, because when the time came for him to sell his business to his son and "retire" to flying full time, the transition was seamless.
"People should definitely not retire until they have some hobby or passion that occupies them completely. If you look at the medical records or just your friends, you'll see that people who retire and just sit around the house are just shot. They'll be dead in a year."
For Segalla, there doesn't seem any danger of that. One recent afternoon, Segalla offered a ride. Flying over the hills, he maneuvered gracefully around the clouds, kicked his rudder into a slip and billowed down for a perfect three-point landing on the grass.
Rolling out, he leaned forward and called out above the engine noise: "Right now, the way I figure it, I'm probably good for another 10 years of this."


"The Flying Farmer" (Stanley Segalla).

No story of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome shows would be complete if "The Flying Farmer" (Stanley Segalla) were not mentioned. Stan has been around doing his skit with his venerable Piper Cub PA-11 forever. Whether it is the first time you see Stan in his farmer's overalls flying the Cub from the back seat with one foot outside the aircraft or the hundredth, you will never cease to be amazed at what that man and his aircraft can do. I believe they are one--the man and the Piper. Below is a photograph of the man and the machine. His famous "dead stick" landing is fantastic to see. Stan puts the Cub down just where he took off--but without power. I have a photo but you have to see the performance live to appreciate it.


Piper J3

I believe that this photo is Stan at the top of his loop--- or it could be that I have the photo upside down. It looks better this way so let's say he is at the top.

1947 Piper PA-11 Cub Special with a Continental 75 hp engine.

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DAY TRIP; Where Old Wings Go to Fly

Published: August 19, 2005

''Biplane Rides: Free. Landings: $40.'' That's the sign by the grass runway of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, a shrine to early aviation tucked away on 110 bucolic acres in Dutchess County, N.Y. ''Come Josephine in My Flying Machine'' drifts from the loudspeakers as four passengers don leather helmets, mount the wing of a roaring 1929 open-cockpit New Standard biplane and slip onto the wooden bench seats.

The body of the aircraft is wood and steel tubing covered in fabric. The only navigational instrument is a compass. The ticket-booth attendant, in a costume Myrna Loy would envy, shouts, ''Don't lean out.''

The pilot taxis, the wheels lift from the earth, and the meticulously restored black and orange antique plane climbs to 1,200 feet, soaring over a quilt of rambling farms, winding roads and velvety green lawns.

With no cabin walls to intrude, cool air rushes by, colors leap out and views are unobstructed in nearly every direction. Swimming pools glisten like jewels; a dip of the wing reveals the Hudson River unspooling north through rolling hills. After 15 thrilling minutes, which make Amelia Earhart a kindred spirit and a pilot's license as desirable as breathing, a swooping turn delivers the plane over the treetops and back to the tiny airfield. (Longer rides, to a variety of destinations, are available on weekdays.)

Mike Lawrence, 51, one of the pilots, says he has seen more smiles than white knuckles from his passengers. ''We give you the helmet and some goggles,'' he said. ''But you're responsible for picking the bugs out of your teeth.''

But even without going up for a spin in a vintage airplane, a visitor can have a day of fun at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome. On weekends, antique planes take to the sky in gloriously corny and daring air shows -- valentines to the stunt-flying barnstormers of the early 1900's. Four museum buildings hold one of the largest collections of antique planes in the world -- about 55 models dating from 1898 to 1935 -- along with vintage cars, bicycles and motorcycles.

Among the planes are an exquisite working reproduction of a 1910 Hanriot (look for a giant origami dragonfly) and an original 1909 Voisin (like a box kite with a wingspan of nearly 33 feet). One of the motorcycles is a cherry-red Indian, built in 1917.

The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, a nonprofit organization, was created by Cole Palen, an airplane buff and former mechanic who died 12 years ago. In 1951, he spent his life savings on six World War I airplanes auctioned by the Roosevelt Aviation School on Long Island and stored them in his family's vacant chicken coops. (The school and the Roosevelt Field airstrip, where Charles Lindbergh began his flight across the Atlantic, were later razed to build the Roosevelt Field shopping mall.)

Eight years later, Mr. Palen, part visionary, part showman, bought the abandoned farm that is now the aerodrome, cleared a runway and began giving loosely organized flying demonstrations. (''I never met a bigger ham,'' Jim Hare, 45, the current air show announcer, said with a laugh.) Gradually, Mr. Palen expanded his fleet and developed the aerial acts.

At the shows, Mr. Hare weaves jokes dating to the Wright Brothers into his educational patter. When a pilot in a Tiger Moth, a biplane built in 1944, swooped through the sky to cut a rapidly unraveling roll of toilet paper with his propeller, visitors learned that the white scarves pilots once favored were used to wipe away castor oil -- the engine lubricant of choice -- splattered on flight goggles by rotary engines. The Tiger Moth, Mr. Hare said, ''can turn on a dime and give you 9 cents change.''

People in the audience, who sit on planks propped on cinder blocks, are recruited for a vintage fashion parade in which they wear outfits like a purple satin one-piece flying suit in the style favored by Harriet Quimby, the first American woman to get a pilot's license.

On Saturdays, the show focuses on the pioneering years, when a plane in the sky was a shocking sight. Sunday shows feature aircraft from World War I and characters like Pierre Loop de Loop and Madame Fifi, whose French accents are as shaky and entertaining as the plot. Children hiss at the Black Baron of Rhinebeck (Mr. Palen's signature role) and cheer for Trudy Truelove, and everyone breaks into spontaneous applause when the oldest flying airplane in the country, a 1909 Bleriot, the first type of plane to cross the English Channel, lifts a few feet off the runway.

AS he bought his planes, Mr. Palen also collected a coterie of cronies besotted with early aviation and recruited them to fly in his shows. Some still do. Others are a fund of memories. Bill Poythress, 85, who can be found in the newly renovated model museum amid dozens of delicate model airplanes, met Howard Hughes in 1938, when Hughes stopped at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn on his around-the-world flight. ''He was a real nice person, and a snappy dresser,'' said Mr. Poythress, who has volunteered at the aerodrome for 46 years. ''He stepped out of that plane like he was leaving the St. Regis.''

Mr. Poythress is enthusiastic about the flying skills on display at the aerodrome. ''You don't see pilots this talented everywhere,'' he said. ''They land so gently, the grass doesn't even complain.''

The shows inspire flights of fancy. One Sunday in June, a man in worn overalls wandered onto the grass runway during the show, took a 58-year-old egg-yolk yellow Piper Cub in what appeared to be a theft and careened full throttle into the sky. ''Folks, that's the farmer from across the way,'' Mr. Hare said, his voice suggesting panic. ''He's never flown solo.'' The ''farmer'' spun the plane like a top, rolled 360 degrees (an impossible feat for a Piper Cub, according to the owner's manual), looped the loop three times, flew sideways, cut the motor and glided back to earth, unscathed, to stop at the precise spot where he had left his straw hat.

Small children in the audience gasped; everyone else, from gearheads to grandmothers, grinned. The interloper was revealed to be Stanley Segalla, 80, also known as the Flying Farmer, a self-taught pilot who has performed aerial acrobatics at the aerodrome since its inception. Mr. Segalla, whose wife, Sue, 67, flies him to work from Connecticut, attributes his vigor to the salutary effects of his work. ''The blood's always rushing back and forth from my head,'' he said. ''That keeps my cholesterol down.''

The pilots pose for pictures with fans after every performance. ''I meet people who saw me fly 40 years ago, and now they're bringing their kids,'' Mr. Segalla said. ''That's the best part of my job.'' He is proud of the aerodrome's record. ''In 46 years, we've never had a serious injury,'' he said.

In his act, Mr. Segalla illustrates how planes can glide to earth if the engine loses power; last Sunday, in a rare accident, a reproduction 1915 Nieuport 11 lost power and the pilot, Brian Coughlin, 40, made an unscheduled and rough forced landing far from the crowd. Mr. Coughlin broke his leg, but his colleagues expect him to be flying again as soon as he can climb back into a cockpit. ''We face some of the same dangers as the early aviators,'' Mr. Lawrence said, ''but it doesn't stop us.''

According to Mr. Segalla, who spends winters in Florida teaching aerial acrobatics, the aerodrome, with its intimate atmosphere, gives audiences a rare, visceral appreciation for early flight. ''You smell the castor oil. You hear the engines. Where else is a kid going to see these old planes in action and get the itch to fly?''

Love, also, seems to thrive at the aerodrome. Mr. Hare, the announcer, met his wife in 1982 when she signed up to play Madame Fifi. Two couples have married during the biplane rides and six couples have become engaged. Mr. Lawrence, who is quick to point out that all the highflying unions are intact, proposed to his own girlfriend while piloting the noisy biplane. ''I passed her a note,'' he said. ''She nodded yes. I guess I spelled everything right.''

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