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Welder remembers airport build

Saturday 27 January 2024 | Written by Candice Luke | Published in Features, Memory Lane, Weekend

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Welder remembers airport build
William Cowan (fitter and welder) and Fitz Fitisemanu (mechanic) at Rarotonga Airport in 1972. WILLIAM COWAN/ 24012670

William Cowan of Arorangi was 30 when he became part of Cook Islands airport history.

In 1972 and 1973, the fitter and welder worked tirelessly on the Rarotonga International Airport construction, starting at 7am and finishing when the work was done (usually around midnight) most days of the week.

Troubleshooting kept Cowan on his toes during the build.

On the day these photos were taken (top right), Cowan says: “We were putting up some steel roof frames, but it didn’t fit, so we had to make it fit.” A mistake was made in New Zealand where they were made. 

The weather was perfect that day, and Cowan joked: “As you can see, we have no shirts on.”

Ensuring the operation ran smoothly also kept Cowan away from his family for long periods of time.

“My wife said I might as well sleep at the airport.” 

He made many friends on the job: “They were from overseas. We would meet up again in Auckland. My good mate Ross passed away just last year.” 

Cowan worked on the airport build until completion, setting sail on a fishing boat for six months following the opening. 

He and his family ended up in Hastings, Auckland and then Australia where he did the same job in the mines, but in 1986 “it was time to go home”. 

Cowan has been home in Rarotonga since. 

On the eve of the airport’s 50th anniversary, he feels proud to have been part of Cook Islands history.