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Yesteryear: First Fearless Flyers in New Hampshire

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - September 16, 2013

Fogg's Seaplane Base

Fogg’s seaplane base at Weirs Beach.

“Don’t take the machine into the air unless you are satisfied it will fly. Never leave the ground with the motor leaking. In taking off, look at the ground and the air.” These were wise words for 1919 when they were posted by the U.S. Army Air Service.

Today they would seem laughable and totally outdated. In our modern-day world, air travel is commonplace. However, it was not always that way. The early days of flight went through many false starts and accidents and NH has had its share of aeronautical growing pains.

Flight has always fascinated intrepid and curious people in New Hampshire; all over the state men and women were learning to fly from as early as the 1920s and ’30s.

Perhaps the first person to take flight in the state was Thaddeus Lowe, who, although a Granite State native, flew balloons on spy missions for the Union Army during the Civil War.

The first recorded New Hampshire plane flight was in June 1911, when Harry Atwood flew from Massachusetts to Concord, NH. It must be remembered that flying a plane was dangerous and machines were crude; landing strips were homemade affairs, quite different from today’s sophisticated runways.

According to History and Heroes of NH Aviation by Jean Batchelder, by the late 1920s, flight was becoming popular, but the state had few landing fields. In the state’s capitol, a flight committee was formed and they were responsible for getting the Concord Airport up and running. The first hanger was built in 1929 and North East Airlines had service from Concord until the early 1960s.

Many consider one man to be the father of flight in New Hampshire. Robert Fogg Sr. was the first fixed based operator in Concord and his career in flight was long and colorful, taking him all over the state and beyond. Fogg was born in Boston in 1897, and as a child, he spent a great deal of his time building model airplanes. He later went to Tilton School and was an aviator in World War I.

The young man knew he wanted a career in flight and he served as a pilot of an oil company after the war. On a visit to NH, the people involved in getting Concord Airport built convinced Fogg to stay in the state and use his expertise to help with the new airport. Because of Fogg’s insight, it is considered that Concord Airport was one of the best-developed airports in the northeastern United States at that time.

Fogg purchased a “Jenny” Curtis JN4-C, the first plane to be owned by a New Hampshire resident. He operated a charter and passenger service from Concord and then set his sights on the water. He started a seaplane business in 1923 at the developing Weirs Beach area using a Navy flying boat.

This was the early days of tourism at The Weirs and Fogg thrilled tourists by taking them on flights over the lake to view such spots as Irwin’s Winnipesaukee Gardens. At The Weirs he started the country’s first rural free delivery airmail. This was most likely a great help to those who summered on islands on Winnipesaukee and at other very remote locations.

Back in Concord, Fogg started a flying school and also manufactured airplane skis, well ahead of his time in all that he endeavored. Later, the film company Pathe hired him for aerial filming of events in other states; Paramount News followed suit.

A woman well known to the Lakes Region who was also ahead of her time as a businesswoman and pilot was Alma Gallagher Smith. Her father owned the Laconia Evening Citizen newspaper. As a reporter for the paper, Alma did a story on flight. Thus began her lifelong passion for flying. She was a wonderful, skilled pilot and was known as one of the first women in the state to become a pilot.

Alma joined the WASPS and later became the publisher of the Laconia Evening Citizen, as well as serving as a flight instructor. It was most unusual for a woman to hold such positions at that time, and we can credit some of the strides women have made in traditionally-held male jobs to women like Alma.

Alma most likely flew from the Laconia Airport, which had been built as a WPA project in 1941. It is recorded that Alma was the first student to solo from the new airport, which was located on Route 11 in Gilford.

Before the Laconia Airport was built, planes in the area landed and took off from an airstrip off Main Street in Laconia near the Belknap County Farm property. It had two sod runways and was a busy airport with such attractions as an air show in the summer.

Those who needed to do business in Boston could now depend upon the Laconia and Concord airports for flight service. Many people were learning to fly and a few saw the benefits of starting commuter schedules using their own planes. One such pilot was A. Donald Vaughan. After World War II he operated Laconia Airways, which later became Winnipesaukee Aviation; the business offered commuter service to Boston.

Some local pilots served in other states and in other capacities. Col. Lewis Hanson of Center Harbor was the first to fly into Berlin, Germany after the war with supplies. He later flew Air Force One and was the pilot the fateful day President Kennedy was assassinated in Texas. He flew the body of Kennedy and the President’s entourage home after Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President.

A Laconia native who served his country and gained national recognition was Harry Thyng. Born in 1918 in Laconia, Thyng was raised in Barnstead and graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1939. He soon enlisted in the US Army Air Corps and was commissioned in 1940 during the war. He was a natural at flying and an ace pilot in World War II and later in the Korean Conflict. After his retirement, he settled with his family in Pittsfield and started the NE Aeronautical Institute in the 1960s. Beloved in his community and beyond, the town of Pittsfield erected a memorial to General Thyng in 2004.

On the other side of Lake Winnipesaukee, Ralph Horn and his wife Eleanor developed an airport near the water. The couple both flew planes and worked hard to get the airport up and running. Horn credits Charles Lindbergh as the inspiration for his career in flight. Horn’s first plane ride was with the New Hampshire aeronautic superstar Robert Fogg Sr.

It is said that the Wolfeboro Airport came about as a result of the Hurricane of 1938. After the gigantic storm ruined the maple orchard on the Horn family farm, Ralph convinced his father to allow him to use the spot for an airport. World War II put Ralph’s plans on hold, but after the war he came home to Wolfeboro and started a seaplane business with five planes and 10 students.

Such people started many smaller NH airports – men and women who loved to fly and saw the benefits of opening up towns around the state to flight. 

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