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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Aviation in Nashua has long, rich history

In eighth grade, Brenda Grady’s favorite part of science class was the unit that her teacher, Dick Piwowarski, did on aviation and the physics that made it possible for huge, winged metal objects to seemingly defy gravity.

But it was the homework –
unassigned homework, to
boot – that thrilled the North End Nashua youngster the most. ...

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In eighth grade, Brenda Grady’s favorite part of science class was the unit that her teacher, Dick Piwowarski, did on aviation and the physics that made it possible for huge, winged metal objects to seemingly defy gravity.

But it was the homework –
unassigned homework, to
boot – that thrilled the North End Nashua youngster the most.

“I can actually see it in my mind – my brother, sister and I standing at the fence watching close up the takeoffs and landings,” Grady said. “I just loved being in the presence of that airport.”

She’s far from alone. Since the most primitive open-cockpit, single-engine craft began bouncing down short, grassy runways in the early 1930s, Nashuans have flocked to the perimeters of Boire Field at Nashua Municipal Airport to watch friends, neighbors and perfect strangers rise into and descend from the wild blue yonder.

Opened in 1934 and rededicated 11 years later in memory of Ensign Paul Aime Boire, who at 22 was Nashua’s first military pilot killed in action in World War II, the airport has grown from a tiny “flag stop” for mail runs and the occasional private flier into a busy general aviation facility central to daily business operations and passenger service for much of central New England.

Its most recent milestone was celebrated just two months ago, when city leaders, politicians and airport personnel unveiled a new, longer runway and upgraded navigational facilities that were part of a $25 million project over several years that was hailed as one of the nation’s largest involving a general aviation facility.

The 6,000-foot runway, more than triple the size of the original strip, is designed to accommodate the large jets more and more businesses are putting into service. About a dozen such jets, plus a few that are owned by individuals, are housed in the airport’s hangars.

In the beginning

While Nashua’s aviation history reaches back to July 1911, when Milford inventor and pioneer Harry Atwood touched down his Burgess-Wright biplane on
a barren plateau called Fairmount Heights, it was an American hero’s memorable flyover 16 summers later that inspired Nashua’s first serious aviation discussions.

A friendly tip of the wing is all it took for Col. Charles A. Lindbergh to send a throng of earthbound onlookers into a cheering frenzy that July 1927 morning. Amid the excitement generated by the brush with history, it took just four days for three men – Chamber of Commerce President William E. Sullivan, secretary Jerry Haggerty and Mayor Eaton D. Sargent – to form a committee “to look into the matter of location and whether … an airport for Nashua would be municipally controlled and owned or incorporated,” according to a Nashua Telegraph story.

Although it took almost two years, the Airport Committee finally set a date, and on an October morning in 1929 – probably unaware of the economic doom about to descend on America – its members boarded an eight-seat plane to identify potential airport sites.

They gazed north and south, then east and west, deliberating the pros and cons of places such as Greeley Farm, between Concord Street and the Merrimack River; the Nashua Driving Park, present site of Fairgrounds elementary and middle schools; land between the Nashua Manufacturing Co. millyard and the Nashua River; undeveloped land south of Nashua Country Club; and a riverside site in Hudson known as Ferryall Field.

Just days later, though, the Great Depression was unfolding, releasing tidal waves of economic uncertainty and worry that banished airport talk and many other routine topics to the back burners in lieu of day-to-day survival.

Farm for sale

For former Mayor Don Davidson, who was all but weened on the young, growing airstrip where he learned to fly and made his first solo, the airport has been a part of family life since, well, forever.

“I was involved in it since I was a kid,” Davidson said last week. “I started flying at 15 and soloed at 16. I graduated high school in 1956, joined the Air Force and started flight training a couple years later.”

Davidson’s love of flying, which evolved into a career as a commercial airline pilot, came naturally. Aviation was a household word at the Davidson home, where accomplished pilot Leon N. Davidson had a captive audience in his young son.

Perhaps the most interesting tale, however, traces a series of events that took place before Don Davidson was born.

“My dad did a lot of flying as a young man, probably in his late 20s at the time,” Davidson said. “He used to fly with a couple other Nashua pilots, but they could only fly out of Manchester or a little place in Hudson called Ferryall Field. They were the only strips around.”

One day, Davidson said, the trio got talking about a farm going up for sale, a good-sized expanse that could, with some work, make an ideal airstrip.

“They went to City Hall and persuaded the mayor and a couple of aldermen to go walk the property with them,” Davidson said. “Eventually they convinced them the city should buy it. And they did.”

It was the early ’30s, perhaps 1932, Davidson said. Thanks in part to the trio’s initiative, airport talk began picking up around City Hall again.

Come early 1934, the mayor’s proposal to acquire the Therrien farm had been finalized and drafted as a resolution, which aldermen took up at their March 13 meeting.

The resolution, which asked the board to authorize Mayor Alvin Lucier and the Finance and Planning committees “to negotiate for and acquire certain property situated between the Pine Hill Road and the Keene Branch of the Boston & Maine Railroad, owned by Joseph Therrien and the Cotton Heirs” passed.

It included the stipulation that “said land, when acquired, to be developed as a C.W.A. Project, and to be used as an Airport,” referring to the Civil Works Administration, one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.

Construction began almost immediately. The project, according to Telegraph stories, created jobs for 100 men – 60 from Nashua and 40 from Hudson – who were quite pleased to be at work. The fact that they were creating a vital part of Nashua’s infrastructure was a bonus.

Craftsmen and laborers toiled through summer and into early fall 1934. On Oct. 12, 1934, “throngs” turned out to celebrate Nashua Municipal Airport’s grand opening.

Although he was delayed more than an hour because of high winds, city engineer Fred Clark was the one to “christen” the new airport when, around noontime, his flight from Manchester touched down to become the first to land on the strip.

The original brick hangar, now called “Building 1,” went up the following year, constructed largely of bricks rescued from the acres of rubble following the city’s 1930 Crown Hill Fire. The newly formed Airport Commission gladly accepted the donation, and after a good cleaning, the bricks were trucked out to the site to begin their second lives.

To celebrate its opening, Milford inventor Atwood, who gave many Nashuans their first glimpse of a “heavier than air machine” 24 years earlier, returned –
this time in his self-constructed “airmobile” monoplane made of birch strips and “a thermo-plastic chemical.”

A city pays tribute

In 1944, Mayor Eugene Lemay said, “In many places … airports bear the name of hero fliers,” and cited Manchester’s Grenier Field as an example “of honoring a Manchester flier who paid the supreme sacrifice.”

At that time, two more Nashua pilots – Lt. Benjamin Parker and Lt. Robert Flanders – had been killed in war-related incidents. Parker died in action in the South Pacific and Flanders was killed in a plane crash off the Atlantic coast.

After lengthy discussion and debate, during which many military groups weighed in with their suggestions, Lemay recommended, and the Airport Commission agreed, that the field bear Boire’s name, because he was the first Nashua pilot killed.

Band music, powerful speeches and patriotism engulfed the little airport on a nice September Sunday afternoon 67 years ago as Nashua residents came together in droves to pay tribute to Ensign Boire, and by extension, all of the native sons and daughters who gave their lives for their country.

The Rev. Aime Boire, of Manchester, the ensign’s uncle, spoke on behalf of the family, who were seated on the reviewing platform surrounded by more than 2,000 uniformed and civilian onlookers.

“The few words it is my privilege to speak here today could … sound to you steeped in pride,” the pastor began, adding, “But it would be a pardonable pride …

“To have this municipal airport renamed and rededicated to the memory of one of my kind is surely a great honor to us, and an honor so deeply appreciated that I am fearful of even attempting to express in words this appreciation.”

Sherman Adams, then a U.S. congressman who would later become governor, was keynote speaker, starting by pointing to the plaque unveiled by WAVE Catherine C. Lucier.

“This field will remind us first of Paul Boire,” he said. “Then again it will … also remind us of all the sons of New Hampshire and of Nashua who, with superlative courage, eagerly went out to face danger and often disaster.”

With Elmer “Pop” Wilson conducting, the American Legion band played several selections, Margaret Sullivan sang “Ave Maria” and the national anthem, and then-U.S. Sen. Charles Tobey said a few words.

The Telegraph reporter noted, “While special invitations were sent to city government and veterans organizations, the dedication is essentially a community event to which all are invited.”

A decade later, a fledgling teenage pilot who’d heard a lot about the man described on the bronze plaque made his way onto the field and began his preflight routine.

“At that time, two planes in the traffic pattern was a busy day,” Davidson said, recalling his training days at Boire Field. “The day I did my solo, I was the only one out there.”

It wasn’t uncommon, Davidson said, to arrive, add 30 or 60 minutes to his flight time and go home without seeing another aircraft in the air.

“Of course, there was no control tower, I think maybe two business planes and a single hangar,” he said. “It was a few years later that it started growing noticeably.”

A new governance

Noting the gradual growth, city officials reviewed the airport’s operation structure and decided it needed an upgrade. The facility, overseen for years by the advisory-only Nashua Airport Commission, became the subject of legislation created by then-state Sen. Richard Leonard, of Nashua, Davidson said.

“What the bill did was create a real airport authority to run it,” he said.

Gaining legislative approval, the new Nashua Airport Authority seated its first five-member board in 1961.

Fittingly, Leon Davidson was named chairman, a seat his son would assume five years later. Today, Don Davidson looks back at the appointment as the place it all started.

“Politically, I’ve gone full circle,” he said of the airport board. “That was my first political assignment, and all these years later, I’m back again.

Indeed, when Mayor Donnalee Lozeau appointed him authority chairman several years ago, Davidson was back at the post he’d vacated more than 40 years earlier. That was in 1969, when Davidson entered his first aldermanic race, kicking off 30 years of public service as alderman or alderman-at-large and one year as acting mayor before he was elected mayor in 1995.

A family legacy

For Brenda Grady, meanwhile, her youthful fascination with aviation has waned little, if at all.

“Quite often, on the way to and from work, I’d choose to drive ‘the airport road’ and even pull into the exact parking spots from my childhood days,” she said, referring to Charron Avenue, which was built in the ’60s to replace the former Airport Road when much of it was closed or fenced off.

The fact she became a science teacher, from which she just retired after more than 30 years, probably helped keep the juices flowing.

“A lot of what I learned, I learned at the Nashua airport,” Grady said. “Now, I take my airplane-crazy granddaughter when she visits.”

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 594-6443 or dshalhoup@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Shalhoup on Twitter (@Telegraph_DeanS).