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The Thompson-Ames Historical Society
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9/13/07 - Dave Emerson shares historical highlights of Laconia Airport

Written by : Carol Anderson, Thompson-Ames Historical Society

As Gilford Public Library celebrates New Hampshire’s first female aviator, Miss Ruth Law, with their September 27th program, Gilford’s Thompson-Ames Historical Society chose to take a closer look at the often misunderstood history of Gilford’s own airport, Laconia Municipal Airport.

Laconia Airport today is situated entirely within the boundaries of the Town of Gilford, yet the property itself is owned by the City of Laconia. Gilford maintains the airport and benefits from the tax revenue. The history of this airport shows that its status has changed many times over the years.

A visit with Dave Emerson of Emerson Aviation, a full-service FBO (Fixed Base Operator) located at the airport, revealed some of the highlights of the airport’s little-known early days.

Benjamin Ames Kimball, railroad magnate and builder of the historic Kimball’s Castle in Gilford, originally owned the parcel of land that was to become Laconia Airport. Like the rest of Gilford at the time, it was open farmland and was used as pasture.

O’Shea Industrial Park in Laconia was the location of the area’s first airport. The job of building Laconia Airport was part of the many WPA (Works Progress Administration) projects underway throughout the Granite State. In the l930’s, as this country was in the throws of the Great Depression, the WPA was put into place as a way to put jobless men back to work. The first WPA project in Gilford was the construction of the Belknap Recreation Area (present-day Gunstock Mountain Resort). As construction of the Area neared completion, the WPA workers from that project were transferred to begin the construction of Laconia Airport.

As the world inched its way toward WWII, it is understandable that the Department of Defense was involved in some way with the construction of this airport. Government officials feared German U-Boats would be stationed off our coast. Even though Laconia Airport started its life in the early l940’s as a defense airport, it was never used for that purpose. From its very beginning, Laconia Airport has had two perpendicular runways. One runway was closed in l976 with officials citing lack of maintenance funds. The closed runway was reopened briefly in the mid l980’s in order for the intersecting runway to undergo rehabilitation and it was then again closed. Today, Laconia has only one runway in use.

Emerson, a man who has lived through much of Laconia Airport’s modern history, knows much about the early days of the airport because his father, Alan Emerson, himself has become part of the airport’s history. A portrait of Alan currently hangs in the airport’s main terminal. Alan was well-known as the owner of Winnipesaukee Aviation, which he bought in 1976. Alan Emerson began work at Laconia Airport in the early l960’s as an airplane mechanic at Winnipesaukee Aviation. At that time, most of the activity at the airport took place at the south side of the airport. The main terminal was located there along with a diner which was complete with a classic 1950’s-style diner counter and approximately 8 to 10 tables. Emerson said, “My father would get done ‘turning wrenches’ and then head over to the restaurant and start work there.”

Life for the Emerson family centered around the airport. Dave Emerson’s love of aviation started when he was very young. Emerson recalled how his father used to let him try his hand at flying when he was as young as three-years-old “I soloed on my 16th birthday in three airplanes: a Cherokee 140, a Cessna 150, and a Tri-Pacer,” said Emerson.

Emerson left work at the airport for work in other fields, but he has since returned to run Emerson Aviation. When asked why he chose airport life and an aviation career over any other, he said, “It’s what I know. I wanted to own my own business, and I believe that you should do what you do best.” He brings with him an old-fashioned sense of discipline and professionalism, yet strives to make work fun.

Emerson has an avid interest in the history of the airport and appreciates its value. Emerson Aviation is located within the oldest permanent standing structure on the airport. Emerson’s hangar was built in l946 and was the home to Skyhaven, the airport’s very first FBO. The historic Winnipesaukee Aviation sign hangs on one wall of the hangar.

The hangar was moved to its present location in l987. Emerson built the new lobby and workshop, as closely as possible, to match the original design. Historic photos of the airport hang on the walls and are also perched on the mantle of the fireplace so that they may greet visitors to Emerson Aviation.

Emerson, commenting on the many changes that have occurred to Laconia airport stated, “Laconia Airport’s budget today is totally self-sufficient. Airports themselves, whether its Laconia Airport or any other, have grown to be part of this country’s transportation infrastructure, just the same as our roads and highways.” History shows that Laconia Airport has adjusted to meet the ever-changing needs of society.

Gilford’s Thompson-Ames Historical Society would like to thank Dave Emerson for his efforts to preserve the history of this town’s airport and for sharing his family’s stories. If you have a family story that you would like share with the historical society, please e-mail us at: www.thomames@worldpath.net. Be sure to check our website for current historical society events: www.gilfordhistoricalsociety.org.