LIHUE — The 85th anniversary of Hawaiian Airlines this month illustrates the long legacy of aviation on Kauai.
It’s a legacy that stretches back nearly as flying itself, and there’s not question planes have completely transformed Kauai’s economy.
In the last two years alone, Lihue Airport has experienced the largest number of direct flights in the history of Kauai tourism. That’s brought more people here. Around 1.1 million arrivals landed in Lihue by air in 2013, both domestic and international, up from 1 million the year before.
That’s a far cry from when the first Hawaiian Airlines flight — a Sikorsky S-38 amphibian propeller plane from Oahu — landed at Burns Field in Hanapepe in 1929.
“The direct, non-stop service leads to visitors staying longer and hopefully spending more on our island,” said Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kauai Visitors Bureau, adding that the increase can be attributed to more direct flights from gateway cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and Seattle, to name a few.
Between that first flight from Oahu and the million visitors now landing in Lihue annually, Kauai’s history with flight is a long and storied one.
How it started
The U.S. Navy’s Aviation Service at Luke Field sent three of its officers to seek possible air and water landing strips on Kauai in 1919.
Major J.B. Brooks, Capt. W.E. Lewis, and Lt. D.G. Duke, arrived on Kauai on Oct. 31, 1919, to investigate possible landing sites for land and sea planes. According to a Nov. 4, 1919 TGI article, the officers were “not enthusiastic” about sea plane landings, calling the Wailua River too narrow to maneuver a plane, while Hanalei Bay was considered an ideal site.
The Wailua racetrack looked good as a field for land planes, Brooks noted in the article.
The state Department of Transportation noted the construction of the first “emergency landing strip” soon after in 1919. An airfield would later be built in Wailua, just north of Hanamaulu Bay. It was considered for the island’s main airport but lacked the ability to be expanded.
TGI also reported in 1919 that James Corstophine, a bookkeeper for Makee Sugar Company in Kealia, returned to Kauai after leaving a position at Hamakua Mill Company to serve as a pilot in World War I, first with the Imperial Forces of Canada, and later the British Royal Air Force.
Corstophine welcomed opportunities to take local residents up for flights, according to the article.
First airport in 1928
The U.S. Army Air Corps cleared land near Port Allen for a landing strip in the 1920s. Burns Field became the island’s main airport in 1928.
Inter-Island Airways starting service in 1929. Airmail began in 1934, trans-Pacific passenger service for land and sea planes starting in 1935.
Faye recalled that his father, Waimea sugar mill owner Alan Eric Faye, was at Burns Field to catch a Hawaiian Airlines plane to Honolulu for a meeting scheduled for early in the morning on Dec. 7, 1941. The plane never showed up and it was only after returning to his car that Faye learned from radio reports that Imperial Japanese forces had attacked Pearl Harbor.
Burns Field was designated for non-scheduled operators until 1954. Now known as Port Allen Airport, the paved 2,450-foot runway is owned by the State of Hawaii Airports Division and operated for small aircraft by Kauai Airport District.
The state failed to extend the runway in 2000 after strong opposition by groups wanting to protect nearby Salt Pond.
Role in historic flight
The military airport at Barking Sands Pacific Missile Range Facility today has a 6,002- foot runway and its own control tower. It all began with plans to create more land for sugar cane.
Kekaha Sugar Company workers dug a drainage canal to pump out the flooded basin, said Kikiaola Construction owner Mike Faye. But they could not level out the sand dunes and, to his knowledge, nothing was grown there. A dirt runway was constructed in 1921.
“We have a picture in the family of a bunch of folks picnicking in the Mana area that is now PMRF,” Faye said.
In his memoir, “Mana, the Place and Its People,” the late John Martin talks about life in the quiet plantation camp just three miles from Barking Sands.
He writes of the excitement he felt as a boy when Australian aviator Sir Charles Edward Kingsford Smith flew his Fokker trimotor monoplane, The Southern Cross, from Oakland to Barking Sands on the first leg of the first trans-Pacific flight on May 31, 1928.
It was the only field in the state long enough for the fuel-heavy plane to take off again on the 3,180-mile second leg to Fiji. It was then the longest-ever flight made over water.
Faye said he grew up with the stories of the plane rising slowly off the runway, then disappearing behind the sand dunes. Many thought the plane went into the water when it suddenly appeared again and flew off, eventually reaching Fiji and then Australia.
The plane was late taking off because the navigator was missing, according to Faye. They reportedly found him in a Waimea Valley bar after a late night on the town and stuck him in the plane, he said.
Long military presence
Ever since the United States took over Hawaii, the Mana and Barking Sands area was considered a strategic military location, Faye said.
“The old USGS maps from 1908 and 1909 show that almost immediately it was observed as a military reserve,” Faye said.
The U.S. Army acquired the land in 1940, according to HDOT. It was paved and named Mana Field. All civilian and military airline service went through Barking Sands from 1942 to the end of World War II.
The airport became Bonham Air Force Base in 1954. As missile testing began, the base transitioned to the U.S. Navy in 1964 and the airport became PMRF, Barking Sands.
Lihue is now hub
Princeville Airport also has a 3,560-foot paved runway and is privately owned by the Princeville Mauka Village. Non-commercial private planes use the runway for a fee, with no commercial flights other than a helicopter charter service.
But today’s main airport is in Lihue.
Built near Ahukini and opened to the public in 1950, the 3,750-foot runway at Lihue Airport was extended to 5,100 feet in 1952, to help land larger propeller-driven airplanes that brought nearly 309,000 annual visitors annually by 1960.
An air traffic control tower was added in 1973, along with the new airport fire station in 1978. The runway was extended again, to 6,500 feet in 1984, followed by the addition of the Richard Kawakami Terminal in 1988. A helicopter facility and cargo building were added a year later.
The expansion of flight has made access to the island easier for tourists, and Kauai’s economy has grown because of it.
“The service from these gateway cities has given visitors convenient access, especially in an era of tighter security measures,” Kanoho said. “While we still enjoy the importance of interisland flights from Oahu, the demand for direct service has helped our visitor arrivals over the years.”