Pilots from around the country enjoy Alton Bay ice
ALTON — Every winter, when the surface of Alton Bay freezes into thick ice, an airport is reborn.
The Alton Bay Airport, an airstrip on the ice of Lake Winnipesaukee, is owned and operated by the state. Airport Manager Paul Larochelle and his staff maintain the 2,600-foot runway, keeping it plowed and smooth for single-engine planes, the largest planes (aside from seaplanes) allowed to land.
There are very few local people using the airport, which has quietly been operating on the lower end of Lake Winnipesaukee since the late 1960s, Larochelle said.
It's mostly used by aviation enthusiasts from the region and around the country, most of whom enjoy landing on the ice and wandering around the Alton Bay ice, where two dozen or so airplanes park on any given weekend day.
"The airport is a novelty," Larochelle said. "It's the only airport like this in the country, and people really enjoy landing here."
On Saturday afternoon, planes were landing at the rate of about five an hour, which is not unusual, he said.
The airport aids the local economy by bringing new customers to town. Residents and the aviation enthusiast community know the airport well, but most people in the area and in the state don't know much about it, airport workers said.
On Saturday, the ice at the airport was busy with pilots and locals milling about, enjoying the parade of planes coming and going. The ice was almost as busy as it had been on the north end of the lake in Meredith in February, when thousands flocked to a fishing derby and a pond hockey tournament.
"A lot of people in the area don't know about (the airport)," Larochelle said. "But everyone here loves it."
"It's a really nice little airport, and landing on the ice is really fun," said Kim Brown of Hampton Falls, whose plane crashed at the airport Saturday.
Chris Clayton of Emerson Aviation in Gilford said the airport is a favorite for pilots.
"It's really beautiful here, everyone loves flying here," he said.
The airport is a registered seaplane base, Larochelle said.