LONDONDERRY, N.H. - During the golden age of air travel, Manchester Airport’s Art Deco terminal buzzed with jet-setters eager for the wild blue yonder. As the airport expanded around it, the WPA-era building shuttered and faced destruction until it was moved to the eastern side of the airfield in 2004. Reborn as the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire, the terminal is once again a departure point, this time for those embarking on a journey through the Granite State’s history of flight.
A vibrant mural depicting New Hampshire aviation pioneers greets visitors. Included in the mural are Thaddeus Lowe, who used hot-air balloons during the Civil War to perform aerial reconnaissance on Confederate troops, and astronauts Christa McAuliffe and Alan Shepard.
Volunteers from the New Hampshire Aviation Historical Society, which operates the museum, guide guests through initial exhibits and down a mock runway into the Slusser Aviation Learning Center, which nearly quadrupled the museum’s exhibition space when it opened last May.
Suspended from the ceiling of the exhibition hall, which resembles a hangar, are the basket of a hot-air racing balloon and a fleet of colorful aircraft, including a third-scale model of the popular Piper J-3 Cub. Artifacts include airplane engines and an enormous Michelin tire from the space shuttle Discovery, and display cases hold models of aircraft carriers, Navy fighter jets, and commercial planes operated by the defunct Northeast Airlines, which once served Manchester.
Panels profile notable New Hampshire aviators, including Carmen Onofrio, who landed his Piper Cub atop snowy Mount Washington 44 times in March 1947, and the history of Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, including its military transformation into Grenier Field during World War II.
Every so often, the ground rumbles and the roar of engines pierces the air as jets fly down the runway just outside the museum’s windows. Children can construct their own aircraft with LEGO blocks and those young at heart can take the throttle on one of three flight simulators, including a cockpit on loan from NASA.
With a dashboard full of gauges to monitor, the flight simulator is much more than some run-of-the-mill video game. Executing a simulated takeoff from Manchester and soaring over the Granite State is the easy part. Try returning to terra firm safely, however, and you will quickly appreciate the aviation maxim: “Flying is the second greatest thrill known to man. . . . Landing is the first!’’
Aviation Museum of New Hampshire 27 Navigator Road, 603-669-4877, www.nhahs.org, Fri-Sat 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun 1-4. Adults $5, seniors $4, children ages 12-16 $2.50Christopher Klein can be reached at christopherklein.com.