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
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
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
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
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
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).
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
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
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
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