By Julie Huss
---- — LONDONDERRY — Granite State aviation history is flying high in Londonderry.
Visitors who stop by the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire can learn all about the rich history trail blazed by many state aviators.
It's this look into New Hampshire's flying past that puts the museum on the "603 Reasons" list for what makes the state special.
The museum is under the watchful eye of the New Hampshire Aviation Society, a nonprofit group dedicated to the history of aviation in the Granite State.
That history is rich and could fill volumes, according to museum interim executive director Wendell Berthelsen.
Berthelsen has volunteered at the museum for several years. He discovered the museum by chance while visiting a nearby mall and heard that a museum focused on aviation was located nearby.
He came to see the place for himself and never left.
The museum is housed in an art deco-styled former 1937 airport terminal that had been moved from its original location at the north end of the Manchester airport field to the current location on the southeast side of Londonderry.
The building also has a tower once used for airport observation, Berthelsen said, another feature giving the museum a unique look while holding many years of how flight started and continues to this day.
Inside the building, exhibits and artifacts tell the stories of New Hampshire aviators, homegrown pilots and adventurers.
There's the story of Derry native and first American in space Alan B. Shepard who, as a young boy, would ride his bike to watch planes take off and land at the Manchester airport. He eventually got a job sweeping out hangars in exchange for some flight lessons.
Early flying maneuvers included the tales of Thaddeus Lowe of Jefferson, who flew surveillance missions in his balloon over Confederate troops during the Civil War.
"He was shot at a lot," Berthelsen said, "but never shot down."
During World War II, the Manchester airport, known then as Grenier Field, ceased civilian flights and became focused on the war effort, becoming a major location for troops for deployment to Europe.
"Most flights to Europe were out of Manchester," Berthelsen said.
There are so many years with so many stories related, he said. That's what makes his volunteer work at the museum so rewarding.
Families with ties to rich New Hampshire aviation history have offered valuable collections of artifacts to the museum.
"We take books, news archives, anything related to New Hampshire," Berthelsen said. "We have an extensive library."
Some items were found by accident. A major exhibit right now is the "Doodle Bug," the first biplane designed and built in New Hampshire. A main structure was first discovered, but the wings came decades later, after being found in a barn.
"Then we found more parts in a Rochester hangar," Berthelsen said. "The wings were all covered with pigeon droppings."
It's one of his favorite exhibits.
The museum also supports the future of aviation, offering educational classes for high school students who are interested in learning about flying. Right now, the program is open to students in Londonderry, Exeter and Manchester, who come three days a week.
Berthelsen said the nearby airport assists in the program to help students see what happens behind the scenes.
"This is something the museum and Society is really focused on," he said. "It's a fabulous program and they get to learn all about aviation."
Berthelsen said it never gets old when it comes to talking about the state's aviation history and those who made the grade when it came to flying.
"Our goal is to have everybody learn something when they come here," he said. "And the best part is, we learn something, too."
The Aviation Museum of New Hampshire is located at 27 Navigator Road. Call 669-4877 for information or visit the museum at nhahs.org.
The museum is open Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m., and by appointment.