Wings and ‘whirlybirds’ over Mangaia

Saturday 24 April 2021 | Written by Rod Dixon | Published in Features, Weekend


Wings and ‘whirlybirds’ over Mangaia
The Walrus amphibian aircraft of H.M.S. Achilles which capsized and sank at Aitutaki, (Press, 18 July 1939). 21042328

In 1945 the ariki of Mangaia offered New Zealand land for an airstrip. In the same year, the ending of the Second World war released thousands of ex-pilots and surplus aircraft to service remote air-routes around the world. While other countries took advantage, another 30 years would pass before commercial aircraft landed on Mangaia. By Rod Dixon

In World War II, airports were built at Penrhyn (1942) and Aitutaki (1943) as stepping stones for America’s southern supply route to Australia. A proposal also existed – but was never implemented – for an NZ sea-plane base at Suwarrow.

In 1944, an airfield was constructed at Rarotonga and a regular fortnightly Dakota service was operated from Whenuapai by the New Zealand Air Department.

An additional air-service to Rarotonga was operated from 1947-52 by the NZ National Airways Corporation (NAC) but abandoned in 1952 in favour of the TEAL flying boat service to Aitutaki.

At the time there was huge Great Power rivalry over international air routes, leading, in 1939, to America claiming sovereignty over Pukapuka, Manihiki, Rakahanga and Tongareva as potential trans-Pacific sea-plane bases.

In 1938 Pan-American Airways had shown interest in using one of the northern Cook Islands as a stop-over on its planned San-Francisco to Auckland route. In 1951, Qantas, Air Tahiti, and Tahiti Hawaii Airways (Honolulu) all visited Aitutaki to appraise it as a stop-over on their planned cross-Pacific or regional routes. The New Zealand government maintained the Rarotonga airfield as a link in a potential future chain of airfields connecting New Zealand to Britain via the Americas.

On Mangaia, the old ariki, Matekeiti Trego, had also recognized the importance of air transport in connecting the outer islands to the outside world. On 4 August 1945, he wrote to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Peter Fraser, offering a gift of land for an airfield.

“The New Zealand Government had already plans to put up an Air Field on our island,” he wrote. “We are willing with all our hearts to give the portion of land which they have selected as a free offer, for Her Majesty the late Queen Victoria’s grandchildren and all their representatives over the seas, to be their future landing place.”

But, just to be clear, Matekeiti also advised the New Zealand PM that the “free offer excepted Cocoa-nut or Orange trees on each plantation – to be paid for. Cocoa-nut tree – five shillings cash. Orange tree – six shillings cash.”

The plan was to locate the airstrip at Tava’enga with some preliminary surveys already completed. And in March 1945, an article on Prime Minister Fraser’s plans for post-war Pacific development announced “Landing strips are to be built at Niue and Mangaia” (Ontario Windsor Star, 6 March, 1945).

Mangaians had seen their first aeroplane in July 1939 – a Walrus amphibian flying boat which accompanied a visit to Mangaia by the Governor General Lord Galway on board HMNZS Achilles. After a similar flyover at Aitutaki, the Walrus unfortunately capsized and sank. Five months later, the Achilles would help sink the German cruiser Graf Spee at the Battle of the River Plate, the first naval battle of the Second World War.

The Second World War brought huge numbers of American aircraft and personnel to the Pacific. But Mangaia, located to the south of hostilities, saw little of the war – a single shipload of G.I.s (on the US transport Hargreaves in 1943). And no aircraft.

So, it was something of a surprise when, on Ash Wednesday, 11 February, 1948, a bright silver NAC Dakota airliner approached the island from the west, causing horses to bolt, chickens to flee and Mangaians to rush from their homes and peer skyward.

Well, not a total surprise. Prior permission had to be sought from the Aronga Mana as “no planes were allowed to fly over Mangaia [without permission] as Mangaia is a Dominion just like Canada” (Mangaia having never ceded its sovereignty to New Zealand).

Permission was granted and items including ‘ute were prepared to celebrate the event.

“We have no airport yet so the visitor could not land,” reported local trader and part-time journalist Edwin Gold, “but the machine circled gracefully over the beach and cliff and seven parachutes, carrying containers of necessary drugs for the dispensary, and a small [amount of] mail were dropped upon the parade ground” (PIM, 20 May, 1948).

The Gisborne Herald (March, 1948) reported that the NAC airliner Pakara had detoured south of its usual flight path to parachute 280lbs (127 kilos) of urgently needed medical supplies and 10 lbs (4.5 kilos) of mail.

That sounds like a lot of pills and letters. But, in fact, most of the seven parachuted steel containers (each measuring 6 feet) contained the personal effects of the newly installed Resident Agent, Major Win Ryan. Ryan was a highly decorated war veteran, famous for helping the King of Greece escape capture by Nazi paratroopers in Crete in 1941. He had a reputation for bulldozing bureaucracy and getting things done.

Arriving on Mangaia in December 1947, Ryan found his belongings held up in Rarotonga by a CIPA boycott of the Avarua port (PIM 19 March, 1948). With all the inter-island schooners berthed in northern ports for the cyclone season, he used his military networks to arrange for his belongings to be loaded into steel containers and parachuted onto Mangaia. To assist the drop, Ryan laid out an arrow of white sand pointing into the wind on the ātea or village green beside the Government Residency.

Unfortunately the silk parachutes and steel containers went missing during their return trip on the Maui Pomare, leaving Ryan tied up in hated bureaucracy for the next 12 months.

‘First drop covers’ from the parachute mail became collector’s items – though, in most cases, they contained only bills. A coconut tree was planted close to the Veitatei meeting house to celebrate the event.

There were hopes that similar air drops might be repeated every month during the hurricane season and speculation that “The parachuting of passengers, in case of necessity, seems quite feasible. In an epidemic, for instance, doctors could now land in Mangaia in this way, even if no schooner were available”.

“The real solution” however, was believed to lie “in the helicopter which would make landing grounds unnecessary” (PIM 20 May, 1948).

Mangaians got their first view of helicopters nine years later, on 26 July 1957 when the British light aircraft carrier HMS Warrior visited the island. Warrior was the operation control ship for the first British hydrogen bomb tests over Malden island in Kiribati, code name Operation Grapple.

HMS Warrior was normally equipped with three Grumman Avenger AS4 aircraft and six Westland Whirlwind helicopters which had been used to to check radioactive fallout from the hydrogen bomb. Afterwards, the contaminated Avenger aircraft were catapulted into the sea, but not the helicopters.

As the Warrior arrived off Mangaia, “The enormous size of the flat top [of the aircraft carrier] impressed the islanders who had seen only much lighter U.S. and British naval units”.

Six whaleboats were sent off to the ship carrying gifts of fruit.

“But before they could get near .. a pair of helicopters rose from the ship’s flight deck and flew to the island…The ‘whirlybirds’ flew around the Mangaian coast and found a large yard ideal for landing.” This was the ātea previously used for the parachute drop.

After that, “the helicopters visited the six districts of Mangaia and returned to the beach where they landed as easily as falling leaves, to the hysterical joy of the islanders …”

While the pilots of the helicopters took tea at the Government Residency, Mangaians swarmed over the helicopters, taking turns to sit in the pilot’s seat.

Then on a signal from the Warrior’s siren, the helicopters took off and returned to the carrier, returning with another group of officers and sightseers for a similar tour of the island.

“Dusk was falling rapidly as the copters returned to the carriers. As darkness fell the giant carrier said farewell to the islanders with a weird ‘talking horn” which in Polynesian said ‘Goodbye, goodbye, We’re off.’…. As a result of this visit there is a strong movement here for helicopter services between Rarotonga, 110 miles north, and Mangaia.” (Honolulu Star Bulletin, 23 August, 1957).

A few years later, in 1962, a visit by the American coastguard icebreaker Eastwind, provided Mangaians with their first ride in a helicopter, trumped later by an exhibition of the 1960 dance sensation ‘The Twist’ by sailors on board the ship (Sioux City Journal, Iowa, 5 September, 1962).

The end of the Second World war released thousands of highly experienced airmen and women onto the job market – including Cook Islands born pilots and navigators who had distinguished themselves with the Royal Air Force and Royal New Zealand Air Force in Europe and the Pacific. The end of the war also released thousands of surplus aircraft onto the market.

As far back as 1936, Australia’s Mandated Airlines in Papua New Guinea had been providing mail and passenger services to remote parts of the territory. The same airline took the opportunity of the war’s end to purchase a complete batch of 24 ex-RAAF D.H.84 Dragons to expand their air operations across PNG.

But there was no comparable visionary thinking from the colonial power in the Cook Islands. In July 1949, the NZ Resident Commissioner W. H. Tailby visited Mangaia and promised “large sums of money” for various projects including “possibly an airport” (PIM, August 1949). Nothing happened.

Four years later, Eddie Gold writing from Mangaia, blamed ‘state control’ as “a blighting hand on air transportation here…In the Cook Islands no private firm is allowed to operate any air services between the islands” (Honolulu Star Bulletin, 19 June, 1953).

“Locally, the few people here, who know about the network of air communications between the islands of the Hawaiian group, are commenting unfavourably on the situation in the Cook Islands” (Honolulu Star Bulletin, 19 June, 1953). Hawaii had been operating inter-island air services since 1929.

In the meantime, the island had to make do with ‘unidentified flying objects’ or ‘UFOs’. Between 1966-1968, Eddie Gold reported numerous phantom aerial sightings including “A mysterious, completely silent and strange-looking aircraft [that] has been reported by hundreds of viewers on Mangaia. The craft was reported as being long and pencil-like but it passed too swiftly for detailed examination. It was sighted on two separate days. Strange sounds resembling the effect of oil drums being rolled across the ground were reported the following day. No explanation ..has been forthcoming from authorities.” (Honolulu Star Bulletin, 11 May 1966). [This was 10 years before the ‘pencil like’ Concorde commenced flying and 20 years before an Air France Concorde visited Tahiti]. And on 16 November, 1968 Eddie reported continuous “daybreak visits from an unmarked “mystery plane” ….coming in from the East …the engine sounding like a tidal wave rolling in.”  The ‘strange sounds’ were possibly Eddie Gold pulling his editor’s leg.

Momentum on inter-island aviation picked up following Cook Islands self-government. Even then, “development of the airstrips ran into resistance from the New Zealand Administration [who] seemed to frown on the whole idea, perhaps because it gave the Cook Islands Government a way of taking control of a major economic initiative…” (Colin Hall, 1994).

In 1976 the Mangaia Growers Association, seeking a way past the unreliable shipping that left fruit rotting on the Oneroa wharf, approached the New Zealand High Commission for financial help in acquiring an ex-Cooks Strait Air Freight Express (SAFE) Bristol Freighter to carry pineapple and vegetable exports to Rarotonga. The New Zealand government decided not to help.

Finally, on 17 June 1977, 33 years after the idea was first mooted, George Cowan (Director of Works) and Papamama Pokino (Resident Engineer) visited Mangaia to start work on an airstrip.

The site chosen was the northernmost point of the island, about 1.6 km north-west of the village of Ivirua. The location itself was makatea land gifted by the Aronga Mana. Although covered in dense vegetation and coral pinnacles, a total of 487 metres of land was cleared within a week with the help of voluntary island labour including school children. (This was later extended to 731 metres; currently the airstrip extends 998 metres).

Ewan Smith with Cook Islands Airways Britten Norman Islander ZK-KHA at the first landing on Mangaia airstrip, 1977 (source; Air Rarotonga)/ 21042333

Three days later, on 27 June, 1977 the first aircraft, a Britten Norman Islander, flown by Ewan Smith for Cook Islands Airways, landed on Mangaia.

In October 1977, Cook Islands Airways commenced a regular air service to Mangaia, and in April 1978, this was expanded to three flights a week. Later, in July 1978, Air Rarotonga began non-scheduled taxi services to the island using a 6-seater Cessna 337, carrying five passengers and 136kg of cargo.

Forty years on, several Mangaians serve as pilots on Air Rarotonga. The airline maintains a schedule of three passenger flights a week to the island, growing to more than 20 flights a week over the Christmas period.

The island’s medical, educational, and administrative sectors as well as its small hospitality and agriculture industries depend heavily on this essential air link. There is talk of relocating or re-orienting and extending the airport runway to accommodate a new generation of aircraft, replacing the Bandierante.

Dreams of cargo drones have replaced earlier imaginings of front-loading cargo planes, helicopters and parachuting doctors.

  • Reference – Colin Hall, 1994, Coming in on a Jet Plane, CIAA, Rarotonga