Trailblazer in the sky: Aviation museum honors Bernice Perry

Photo courtesy of the MILFORD HISTORICAL SOCIETY The first New Hampshire woman to earn a pilot’s license, Bernice Perry was honored by a program at the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire on Saturday.

LONDONDERRY – When she was a teenager during World War I, Bernice Blake loved to watch planes head for Europe, and she knew she wanted to be up there flying some day.

Not many years later she took flying lessons at the new Manchester Airport and became the first New Hampshire woman to earn a pilot’s license and eventually became a founding member of the Ninety-Nines, a national advocacy group for women in aviation at a time when there were only 99 women pilots in the U.S.

On Saturday she was honored at a program at the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire.

Perry’s father owned Blake’s Creamery in Manchester, which opened restaurants in Milford and Manchester, but Bernice was too much of an adventure lover for restaurant management.

She met her husband, Winthrop Perry, at the airport. After he invented a camera that could be mounted on a plane and the two started an aerial photography business, creating aerial maps of Milford that hung in Milford Town Hall for years. They also took aerial shots of all the state landing fields as well as proposed sites for future fields and did other work for the state.

Photo courtesy of the MILFORD HISTORICAL SOCIETY A young Bernice Perry sits in the cockpit of an aircraft. Perry was the first woman in New Hampshire to earn a pilots' license.

When Winthrop’s job as a machine designer at Abbott Machine Company took more of his time, Bernice carried on with the photography business, working with the MacDowell Colony, Cathedral in the Pines and took photos for The Cabinet and other news organizations.

Perry loved everything that flew, and when she stopped flying she continued going up in the air in hot air balloons. When she was 86 she took her final balloon ride with Dale Riley, who helped start the Hot Air Balloon Festival. The festival took place for many years on Perry’s field on Old Wilton Road in Milford.

“She was extremely strong-willed,” her longtime friend and attorney Wilson Sullivan told the Telegraph after she died in 1996. “She used to talk about how in the ’30s her plane ran out of fuel, and she had to find a place to land. She thought that was a great adventure. She never, ever looked back.”

Perry left $4.5 million in scholarships to benefit students in Milford, Lyndeborough and Wilton and willed her archives of more than 43,000 photo negatives to the Milford Historical Society following her death in 1996 at age 91.

Ed Brouder, co-author of “Manchester’s Airport: Flying Through Time,” will recount Perry’s life story and contributions to women in aviation as part of the museum’s celebration of Women’s Aviation Month.

The program was presented with the help of the Milford Historical Society. For more information, visit www.aviationmuseumofnh.org.

Kathy Cleveland may be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@nashuatelegraph.com.