Looking Back/Blue Angels

The headline for the Manchester Union Leader’s June 23, 1958, edition featuring a photo of the Blue Angels flying in formation, and an aerial view of a sea of cars parked at the airport.

Soon after World War II ended in 1945, government officials and business leaders in Manchester began wondering, “When will the city get its municipal airport back?” The Manchester Airport had begun operating in December 1927, and it was converted into a U.S. Army Air Forces base in 1940. In 1942 the base was named Grenier Field in honor of Army Lieutenant Jean Grenier, a Manchester pilot who had died in a plane crash in 1934.

By the end of 1946 it appeared that Grenier would be closed and the city would be able to take over, but the base was brought back to life in 1947 to serve as part of the country’s modern air defense system. Grenier Field became Grenier Air Force Base, and it went on to serve as the home for the New Hampshire Air National Guard (NHANG) and a series of U.S. Air Force and Air Force Reserve units.

In 1950 the Air Force began to permit limited civil aviation activity at Grenier. In 1955 the Air Force agreed that the airfield would begin operating fully as a combined military-civilian facility. On July 1, 1957 control of the airfield was turned over to the City of Manchester. Per agreement with the City, the Air Force and the NHANG continued to operate on the property as tenants. In 1959 the Manchester Airport Authority was established to serve as the administrative agency for managing and developing the airport.

Beginning in 1947, from time to time open houses were held at Grenier, which were always popular with the general public. The first open house that took place after the city gained control of the airfield was a modest affair held on Sunday, July 7, 1957 in conjunction with an encampment of 500 Civil Air Patrol (CAP) cadets. The CAP is the volunteer civilian auxiliary of the Air Force. Several hundred people came to view the static displays of aircraft from the NHANG, the Air Force, and the Navy.

The next open house was the 1958 “Air Age Show” presented by the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. On the first day of this two-day event, Saturday, June 21, the sky was overcast, so the only aircraft that flew were helicopters used in rescue demonstrations. Around 10,000 people showed up that day. With perfect flying weather predicted for Sunday, June 22, the number of spectators swelled to over 100,000.

Military aircraft and civilian planes had been flown to Manchester from along the eastern seaboard, from Maine to Florida. A big hit of the static display was a huge C-121 Constellation AEW (Airborne Early Warning) radar picket plane. People waited in a long line to get a tour of the interior of the aircraft. Another favorite was a sleek Convair F-102 Delta Dagger interceptor. The public was allowed to climb a portable staircase to get a glimpse into the aircraft’s cockpit.

Planes flew overhead nearly continuously, some in formation. The highlight of the day was an amazing aerial demonstration by the Navy’s Blue Angels, flying their Grumman F-11F Tiger carrier-based fighter planes. The Manchester Union Leader reported that “All who watched the barrel rolls, loop-the-loops, ‘echelon’ rolls, and the ‘Burst of the Blues’—a five-plane formation ending in a design resembling a fleur de lis—were impressed by the precision and accuracy of the flying team, who travelled at speeds approaching the speed of sound, well over 600 miles an hour, with between three to five feet between aircraft.”

The Chamber presented a second exciting “Air Age Show” on the weekend of June 20-21, 1959, that also attracted enormous crowds. Throughout the day Northeast Airlines took passengers on short tours of the area in their 78-passenger DC-6-B Sunliner four-engine airliner, and a Navy ZP Blimp radar station flew over the crowds.

The show’s finale was an acrobatic display by the Air Force Thunderbirds flying their North American F-100C Super Sabres. As the Union Leader described, “There were loud booming reports and roars from the afterburners as they made low level passes. Perhaps the most spectacular demonstration of precision flying and timing was when three Thunderbirds coming from opposite directions dove for a central point about 50 feet off the ground and whizzed by each other.”

Next Week: The final years of the joint military-civilian airfield in Manchester.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at auroreeaton@aol.com or at www.facebook.com/AuroreEatonWriter

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