Picture a young child in the early 1900s looking out the bedroom window and seeing a giant metal bird fly by, and being shaken out of bed by the noise. That's probably what happened when Keene's first airport was established in the backyards of many homes near Wyman Road in northwest Keene.
Today, 75 years later, the only clue that this was the site of Keene's first airport is the flat field on which the runway was situated, and near where factories are going up in an industrial park.
Flying in Keene had actually started before that airport opened in 1928, though the exact date of the beginning of aviation in the local area is not certain. One published account of the first local flight has it that, sometime before World War I an "unknown adventurer" took off from Safford Park Grounds, the current Cheshire Fairgrounds. It is better described as an attempted flight. An eyewitness quoted in The Sentinel said the plane "got as high as the fence" before crashing.
The first planned flight into Keene occurred in the early 1920s. Alexander J. Drexel Biddle of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania landed his plane on a strip of land between the railroad tracks and the house at 700 West St.
He had called ahead and asked a local telephone operator to connect him with someone who knew enough about flying and local weather patterns to find him a to good landing spot. Paul Shedd, a former army flyer, was contacted, and he and Edward C. Sweeney put a stake in the ground at the proper place with a piece of cloth tied to it to indicate wind direction.
Shedd and other local World War I war veterans, who were in the Army Air Corps, probably sparked the interest in aviation in the Keene area. In the late 1920s a committee was appointed to discuss Keene's future in aviation.
The land where the Dillant Hopkins Airport now stands — in North Swanzey — was considered for the first airport site, but the idea was dismissed because of potential conflicts that between the town of Swanzey and the city of Keene.
In 1928 an airport engineer advising the group suggested that, instead, it use a 165-acre lot on Wyman Road. The committee called the area the "flying field." There were two runways set up and there was room for expansion.
An opening celebration took place September 21 and 22. The opening coincided with the 175th anniversary of the granting of Keene's charter. Several thousand people came to the event to watch stunt flying units from the Navy and Marines. Parachute jumping and air races were also featured. People were also given the opportunity to ride in one of the planes.
The airport was used mostly for private planes and flying lessons. Some people who lived in Keene who had their own planes operated from their own fields and did not use the runway at the airport.
The airport, which operated from 1928 until 1932, was named the Fred A. Putnam Airport because of his involvement in aviation. He was on the board of directors of the airport from 1928 until 1932, serving as vice president and president. He was the founder of Markem Machine Co., which was established in 1911. He was called one of the country's most frequent users of air travel for business purposes. By 1935, he had traveled approximately 35,000 miles by air.
He also played a major part in bringing Amelia Earhart to Keene in 1932. She made a speech on the future of air travel.
A decision to build a new airport was made, and attention returned to the site in Swanzey that had been considered earlier.
The airport was named in honor of David Dillant of Keene and Edwin Chester Hopkins of Swanzey who had given their lives in World War II. A dedication ceremony was held on Oct. 31, 1943 with nearly 5,000 people present.
Work began on an airport that could provide for the area's growing interest in aviation. Workers were paid around $50 per week, which was a substantial sum during the 1940s. The total cost for the airport project was approximately $1,100,000.
Regular passenger service began in 1946 with Northeast Airlines. The first flights made one stop at Springfield, Mass. en route to New York City.
Lighting of the airport was added in 1948-1949. Signal beacons were added in 1951. By 1952, an estimated 200 airplanes used the airport each month. At that time, Northeast Airlines and Mohawk Airlines were the two commercial airlines that made use of the Dillant-Hopkins Airport.
A succession of companies provided scheduled air services to the Boston and New York markets, but that is no more. The majority of the air traffic from the airport today is by private planes, including corporate planes. Today, several commercial businesses operate out of Dillant-Hopkins, some of them flight schools.
The training activity is in keeping with local traditions dating back to before World War II. In the fall of 1940, Lee D. Bowman came to Keene with his Bowman Flying Service. He started civilian pilot training lessons at the Keene Airport in 1941.
The U.S. Navy set up a naval aviation cadet program in Keene and assigned Bowman to supervise. Forty instructors taught roughly 750 men, using thirty airplanes in a total of 50,000 hours of training without one accident. Six hundred fifty students became Navy pilots to aid in World War II. After the war, Bowman taught people to fly under the G.I. Bill.
As for the future, an Airport Development Committee is on the job. Its mission is to look at potential development opportunities for commercial aviation, general aviation, and industrial and business uses at the airport.
At one time activities relating to the airport did cause strains to the relationship between Keene and Swanzey — just as some people had feared when the site we first considered in the first half of the 20th century. Among other things, trees on private property around the airport were cut down to make way for clear flight paths, but the controversies have mostly quieted.
The noisiest it gets now out there is when Keene holds air shows, similar to the exciting events held at the opening of the first airport in 1928.
Molly Riendeau is a junior in the honors-level American Studies class at Keene High School, for which this report was written.