The keeper of Northeast Airlines, Norden bombsights and flying nuns

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The cramped quarters of an early instrument-flying trainer. Quarters for the ride accepted!

LONDONDERRY, NH – Londonderry’s Aviation Museum of New Hampshire is loaded with both prominent and arcane manned-flight history and Executive Director Jeff Rapsis is just the guy to chronicle the role of the Granite State in it all.

During a recent visit, Rapsis explained how he’d patched together several old Northeast Airlines booklets and listings of former employees for an invitation list for a 50th reunion of former employees in Manchester on July 31. Both the former employees and the airplanes are known as Yellow Birds for the airline’s color scheme. Northeast Airlines was folded into Delta in 1972, and while many employees transitioned to Delta, some did not. One former Northeast flight attendant, Linda Valdez, still flies for Delta out of New York City’s JFK International! Thankfully, times have changed from when “stewardesses” had to be young, pert and unmarried. The director produced a box of approximately 75 letters returned by the post office. Not bad for 1,000 mailings from listings that hadn’t been seriously updated since 1998.

“I personally have a soft spot for Northeast Airlines because of my family’s involvement,” Rapsis said. “It was the original airlines that served this area. Delta was here (Manchester-Boston Regional Airport) until last year. It’s been a long record of continuous involvement and an important part of aviation in New Hampshire.”

According to Rapsis, it’s not unusual to hear a new story or find new information about his father John, who flew for Northeast for 11 years. The elder Rapsis was piloting Northeast Airlines Flight 946 from Boston to Montpelier, Vermont in the night fog and rain of October 28, 1968, when the plane descended too early on its approach to Hanover-Lebanon. The airport’s beacon likely malfunctioned because of the conditions, giving the pilots inaccurate information. The twin-prop Fairchild Hiller crashed into Moose Mountain approximately 40 feet from the summit. John Rapsis was among the casualties. Jeff was only four at the time.

The 1960s look of a Northeast Airlines Yellow Bird flight attendant.

Among the literally hundreds of Northeast Airlines artifacts at the museum is a logbook from a flight attendant showing “Rapsis” as the pilot on a flight. The director was recently presented with a vanity automobile license plate with the initials “NEA” found in a Wilton scrapyard. He recognized it as belonging to his father.

“When they first started flying from Boston to Montreal, this was the first stop, right at this airfield, at this terminal we’re sitting in,” Rapsis explained. “They were flying 10-passenger Lockheed Electras.”

Amelia Earhart flew a Lockheed Electra.

Rapsis is no stranger to the arcane. He hits the keyboard regularly to provide music for screenings of silent films. By his estimate he’s done well over a thousand performances of 370 different titles. He cites the cult-vampire movie Nosferatu as a Halloween favorite, but calls Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman a personal favorite. The film was the last of the silent era for the great comedian and Rapsis feels it was Keaton’s tribute to a genre soon to be gone.

The Cameraman showed the potential of silent film, that it triggers a sense of infinity,” Rapsis said. “The human capacity for creativity is a mighty one.”

Rapsis feels a silent-film connection with his Dad as the elder Rapsis would have been 11 in  1927, the year Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis, with Wings garnering the first Academy Award for Best Picture in 1929. Clara Bow and Gary Cooper starred in the first film to put the viewer in a cockpit.

“Northeast Airlines role in World War Two is quite significant,” Rapsis explained. “Northeast had one of the first pilot training programs anywhere to offer experience flying in cold weather.”

In the early days of aviation, licensing, safety regulations and regulations period were haphazard. The government asked Northeast pilots to plan an air route over the North Atlantic and lay out a system of stops for a DC-3 or smaller plane to get men and materials from North America to Europe. Eventually the route from here to there started with Manchester or Presque Isle, Maine to Labrador or Newfoundland to Greenland to Iceland to Scotland.

“A good chunk of what went over the North Atlantic for D-Day went over that route and right over this field in Manchester,” Rapsis explained.

The museum pays tribute to Anita L. Paul, a Womens Air Force Service Pilot (WASP) of the World War II era. Growing up on a Hudson Farm, she’d spent time in a Maryknoll convent in New York State before Pearl  Harbor. WASPs trained male pilots, flew experimental aircraft stateside, transported planes and towed airborne targets for male pilots and flak batteries. Disbanded in the fall of 1944, WASPs were originally denied all military honors, a mean and meaningful oversight as 38 of the war’s 1,074 WASPs were killed in service.

Nashua/Hudson’s Anita L. Paul was the original Flying Nun

Paul was active in engineering, maintenance and as a test pilot out of Altus, Okahoma. Post-war she became Sister Teresa and joined an order of Carmelite nuns cloistered from the world in prayer. In her later years she was given permission to speak publicly about the role of her generation of women in the military. 

The highly technical Norden bombsight also has a place in the museum. Readers or viewers of Unbroken will recall bombardier Louie Zamperini’s successful bombing run over a Japanese Pacific stronghold using a Norden. When later captured and questioned by the Japanese, he drew a picture of a Philco radio. Designed by the US Army Air Corps, the predecessor of the US Air Force, the Norden allowed a bombardier to adjust quickly for approach, airspeed, wind conditions, etc. rather than having to calculate everything by hand. It wasn’t perfect but it was a big improvement and was used through the American War in Vietnam.

The arcane? Rapsis chuckled over Northeast Airlines short-termed use of a potato farmer’s field in Rockland, Maine as a landing strip. While things initially went well, the farmer eventually soured on his potatoes being ruined and kicked the airline off. The director described an early instrument-flying trainer as resembling “a kiddie toy like you’d find outside a supermarket.”

Rapsis sees the role of the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire and Northeast Airlines as passing the torch to a new generation.

“It will show people that what they do matters,” he said. “It wasn’t just a job, it was a way of life…The story of Northeast Airlines is part of the story of aviation, and the story of aviation has not begun to be told.”

Rapsis wanted to make it clear that the Yellow Birds 50th reunion, which will be held at Manchester’s downtown Hilton, is open to all. Contact the museum for full details.




About this Author

John Angelo

John Angelo’s humor has appeared in “Publisher’s Weekly,” “Writer’s Digest,” and “American Bookseller.” He is a frequent contributor to the “New Hampshire Business Review.” For a Christmas concert at his Catholic grammar school, the nuns told him to mouth the words and that he’d better not make a sound under any circumstances.