Things have certainly changed since those early days, and now the airport welcomes over 40,000 visitors who cross the tarmac every year from around the world. Tourism is now the lifeblood of the local economy, and without its airfield, Aitutaki wouldn’t be where it is today…
Recently the airport reached another major milestone in its long life, turning 75.
A festive celebration was held in the terminal building last Tuesday morning and was attended by many locals and friends from afar to commemorate its colourful past.
Airport Authority Board of Directors chairman JJ Browne chairman says, “The turnout from dignitaries, invited guests and the people of Aitutaki was just awesome and much appreciated.”
He says it was a time to reflect on the airfield’s history, and to remember the contractors – the United States engineering firm, Sverdrup and Parcel, as well as the New Zealand Ministry of Works, US military personnel, and the many locals who contributed to the construction of the original two airstrips; completed on November 14, 1942.
“We acknowledged the development of the airport from its humble beginnings to our current terminal, and sealed runway, with lights enabling night flights, servicing as many as six domestic flights a day - including chartered flights from Bora Bora, plus private charters. And then there is the huge social and economic impact the airport has brought about for Aitutaki.”
Browne says airport staff and guests also paid special recognition to the descendants of the US soldiers, those still living on Aitutaki, and a few who made the special trip back for the occasion.
Display story boards showing historical information were also unveiled and are now permanent fixtures in the terminal. Browne says a huge feast wrapped up the celebration and guests were entertained by a local string-band.
The airfield was originally built out of crushed coral for the US Army who needed staging points in the Pacific during World War Two. It is believed to have cost the US government around $4.5 million, a considerable sum in those days.
Aitutaki, Tongareva (Penrhyn), Borabora in French Polynesia, and Christmas Island were just a few of the islands chosen by the Americans to land their aircraft.
And it would have been an eye-opening sight for locals on November 22, 1942, when the first aircraft, a Liberator bomber, landed on Amuri field, as the airport was then known.
Around 800 US soldiers were subsequently based on the island for a year, and as soon as the Japanese push south stalled, they were instead deployed north to front lines such as Tarawa atoll in Kiribati and Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.
They did, however leave behind a small caretaker squadron of about 12 servicemen up until 1946 to take care of the runway bases and eight camouflaged bunkers around the airport that were used to house aircraft.
Legendary “silver screen” actors Gary Cooper, Una Merkel, and Phyllis Brooks were flown out to Aitutaki in 1943 to entertain the troops. The latter were the first two civilian women to travel to the Pacific theatre of war.
Over the following years many other famous people visited Aitutaki, including US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in August 1943. Then there was accordionist Andy Arcari, author James Michener, and New Zealand prime minister at the time, Peter Fraser.
Runway two was sealed with bitumen in 2003 and is the only airstrip used today. From 1947 until 1973, Amuri field was used for the Polynesian Airlines weekly service, and occasional NZ National Airways Corporation (pre-Air NZ) flights.
After Cook Islands Airways was introduced in 1973, and Air Rarotonga in 1978, domestic travel became much more frequent.
Thanks in a large part to its runway, Aitutaki has since become the most popular local destination outside of Rarotonga.