Off to a flying start with Wellington Airport

If you live in Wellington, you’ve probably experienced a bumpy ride in and out of the city, which is appropriate given the highs and lows the airport has been through since its inception in 1928.

View of Rongotai and Centennial Exhibition buildings. Photograph taken in 1939 by William Hall Raine.
View of Rongotai and Centennial Exhibition buildings. Photo by William Hall Raine in 1939

One of New Zealand’s first flights was in Lyall Bay as Arthur Schaef got airborne for a few metres in 1910, so it seems only fitting that the Rongotai Airport, as it was then known, had its humble beginnings in the neighbourhood.

Starting life as a simple grass runway in 1928, Charles Kingsford Smith touched down at the make-shift airport in 1929 at the end of his first trans-Tasman flight. It eventually developed into a functional airport in 1935, but was closed in 1947 as the grass surface was inoperative during most of the Capital’s winter months.

Paraparaumu airport, which had previously been an “Emergency Airport”, took up the reins and was the country’s busiest airport in 1949 – even though the National Airways Corporation saw a major drop off in Cook Strait passengers because of the 35 mile (approx. 56 kilometres) commute from Wellington.

Aerial view of the Rongotai Airport, Wellington, photographed by Whites Aviation on 21 January 1959.
Aerial view of Rongotai Airport, 1959. Photo by Whites Aviation

Because of the isolated location of Paraparaumu, and the fact the terrain was deemed too dangerous for large planes, a proposal to construct the new Wellington Airport was discussed in 1953.

The project involved shifting three million cubic metres of earth and rock, flattening Rongotai Hill, and the demolishing or moving of 180 houses from the area to reclaimed land near Evans Bay.

The new airport took six years to build and cost £5 million (the equivalent of approx. $214m NZD today), with the City Council contributing £1.5 million of that.

The airport officially opened on 25 October 1959, with thousands of spectators there to witness the event. Because of some discrepancies with the height of the runway at both ends, two planes scraped their undercarriage and narrowly avoided mass fatalities.  

View of the Domestic Terminal, Wellington Airport. Photographed for the Evening Post newspaper by an unknown photographer in 1984. Published in the Evening Post 29 May 1984.
The 'temporary' domestic terminal, photo published in Evening Post 29 May 1984

Disaster averted, the opening of the temporary airport terminal went ahead, and the “tin shed”, as it was affectionately dubbed, ended up being a little more than temporary – lasting until 1999 when the new terminal was finally built in its place.

The “tin shed” was a corrugated iron hangar that served as the only domestic terminal in the Capital until 1986 when Ansett New Zealand built a new terminal in competition with Air New Zealand.

Numerous plans for the airport have been released over the years which have either fallen by the wayside for one reason or another, some have come to fruition like the airport buying land from the Miramar Golf course for additional parking space, and some are currently in progress like discussions on the runway extension.

Like it or leave from it, at least these days we have an award winning airport terminal to come and go, and welcome or farewell our guests from – and let’s not forget Smaug!

Images courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library.