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Planes of the Past

Museum Chronicles History of Flight in the Granite State

Story by Tom Long / Photos by Stacy Milbouer / Fiddlehead Contributing Editors

The New Hampshire Aviation Museum is housed in an art deco building, a little nugget of local, architectural gold in Londonderry. But the real treasures are the stories within.

Did you know the first pilot to cross the Atlantic Ocean was not Charles Lindbergh, but Albert C. Read of Lyme? Or that the grandfather of the United States Air Force was Thaddeus Lowe of Jefferson Mills? Or that the country’s first astronaut, Alan Shepard, learned to fly here?

These are just a few of the many bits of history to be uncovered at the museum.

The building is a pigeon hop from the runway at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. It was once the control tower at Grenier Field, a predecessor of the regional airport. It has a glass tower in which a single overseer manipulated signal lights that controlled takeoffs and landings.

It was built by the Works Progress Administration in 1937. The building has benches built into the structure on which travelers awaited their flights. Back in the day the planes wheeled right up to the tower like taxicabs and passengers dressed in their Sunday best.

The War Department took over the airport in 1940 and used it as a staging area for the flights of newly made bombers to Europe.

At the entrance to the museum visitors are greeted with a succession of murals.

“They are people from New Hampshire who impacted aviation,” said Brian McCarthy of Windham, a volunteer.

There were colorful renderings of the Granville Brothers, who built and raced airplanes with wings longer than the fuselage and were early stars of pylon racing; astronaut-teacher Christa McAuliffe, who lost her life in the Challenger disaster; and of course, hometown hero Shepard.

“Shepard used to ride his bicycle here from his home in Derry,” McCarthy said. “He got a job cleaning a hangar in return for flying lesson. And, of course, became the first American in space and later went to the moon.”

The building was originally situated on the other side of the runway and was slated for demolition in 1995, but was rescued after the airport historical society, the City of Manchester and the Town of Londonderry raised $1.1 million to move the landmark to the opposite side of the airport.

The one-room museum opened in 2004, but it really lifted off five years later. That’s when Hopkinton pilot and electronics executive Eugene Slusser and his wife, Anne, of Hopkinton donated $1 million to expand the facility. The result is the Slusser Aviation Learning Center with expanded exhibits and an accredited course in the science of flight for local high school students.

The original room is painted sky-blue with a display of photos illustrating the work of the late Vinnie Devino, the original director of the museum, who was a principal engineer in the building of the F-22 fighter jet.

Among the other exhibits is a working flight simulator. There is also an airliner cockpit. On a recent afternoon, 9-year-old Andrew Foley of Hudson beamed at the controls of the plane while his father, Brian, watched proudly. The conversation was breached by the roar of jet engine as a plane rose from the runway outside.

The old signal lights from the terminal are on display as is the canopy of a P-51 fighter plane that lost the cockpit bubble on a flight over Exeter many years ago. Locals who recovered the item used it as a toboggan before donating it to the museum.

There is a homemade biplane that James Jackson of Brookline built during the 1960s, using plans he bought for $20.

"My lifelong dream was to build my own aircraft. I built this biplane when I was a young man with a wife and child, living on a shoestring in a mobile home. This labor of love took five years, 10 months and 14 days to complete,” Jackson said, according to story distributed by the museum.

There is also a display based on the exploits of Lowe of Jefferson Mills, aka “grandfather of the US Air Force,” who was named chief aeronaut of the Union Army by Abraham Lincoln and flew 1,000 hot air balloon missions during the Civil War.

Another display spotlights the work of Naval aviator Read, of Lyme, who made the first transatlantic flight from Long Island, N.Y., to Plymouth, England, in a Curtis Flying Boat in 1919. It was not a direct flight. He flew from ship to ship strung across the ocean for him to refuel. It took him 23 days.

The museum includes a tribute to the career of Sister Teresa, born Anita Paul in Nashua, a WASP pilot who delivered bombers overseas during World War II before becoming a Carmelite nun.

“Some of the exhibits can be moved to make more room so we can have functions at the museum,” said Tom Maxwell of Raymond. “We’ve even had a couple of weddings. Both involved military pilots.”

And even though the airport may not be a household name in New Hampshire, there are no shortage of visitors from near and far. Visitors have come from as Australia, the Ukraine and Bangladesh.

But not all visitors come from so far away.

“We’ve had people who came in and said they had a few hours between flights at the airport and thought they’d come in and check us out,” said Matt Nihan of Manchester, another volunteer who became interested in the museum after working for the architectural firm that designed the addition.