Interisland air travel was initiated in Hawaiʻi on November 11, 1929, by Stanley Kennedy, a WWI aviator who acquired two Sikorsky S-38 Amphibian aircraft and initiated direct service from Honolulu to Hilo (3 times a week) via Maʻalaea, Maui, and to Port Allen, Kauai (2 times a week). Later, service was added to Molokai.
For a number of years, Kailua-Kona was only serviced by seaplanes. Then (after clearing an area of rocks the week before,) on August 21, 1935, Alfred W Smith landed his single-seated monoplane about a mile north of Kailua, the first airplane ground landing ever made in Kona.
By the late-1930s, there was a public push to provide an airport at Kailua, Kona. An area parallel to the beach, previously used for small aircraft operations, and known as Kailua Airstrip, was determined to be the only suitable area in the vicinity. It was located about 1½-miles northwest of the Kona Inn.
“It is believed that the proposed airport would result in a great increase in tourist interest in the area and also in the development of vacation homes for residents of Honolulu,” stated a Department of Public Works report.
“The general opening up of the area by providing means for quicker transportation to Honolulu would tend to interest young people of Oahu in the possibility of establishing themselves in the Kona area (where land is relatively available) and thus help solve the land scarcity problem which is critical on Oahu.” (hawaii-gov)
“The shipment of Kona fruits and vegetables to Honolulu by air freight would be economically practicable both for sale in Honolulu and, during certain periods of the year, for trans-shipment to California.” (hawaii-gov)
In late-1940, applications were prepared and processed under the provisions of the 1940 National Airport Act. The next year funds were allotted, but construction never started. Finally, in 1944 the Post War Planning Division of the Territorial Public Works Department proposed proceeding with the airport when the war was over.
Surveys were made and plans prepared by the Department of Public Works, and in May 1948 bids were opened for construction of a runway 100-feet wide by 3,500-feet long, an aircraft parking mat and an access road connecting the main road through the village of Kailua.
Work was started June 10, 1948. Due to the multiple ‘Kailua’ names for various items, including airports (there was another private airport at Kailua, Oʻahu,) on February 7, 1949 the airport was named Kona Airport.
On July 10, 1949 between 3,000 and 4,000 people gathered at the new Kona Airport for the official opening and ceremonies. Acting Governor Oren E Long officially declared the airport open for commercial air transportation, and said he “hoped that in spite of the trade and prosperity that the district would inherit, Kona would remain noted for its hospitality and not become a Great White Way marred by neon signs and a Coney Island atmosphere.” (hawaii-gov)
Hawaiian Airlines President Stan Kennedy announced that additional weekend flights would be made by his airline on the Kona Coaster every Friday afternoon from Honolulu and returning every Sunday afternoon. “Kona will become, now more than ever, a must for the tourist as well as for local travel,” Kennedy said.
Hawaiian Airlines was the first commercial plane to arrive at the airport from Honolulu via Molokai at 11:30 am bringing a full load of passengers and the first direct air mail from Oahu. It took off at noon bound for Honolulu with passengers and air mail.
Over the next few years the facility was expanded and the runway lengthened. However, the location of the airport, with planes flying over Kailua-Kona and nearby residences, started to raise concerns – especially with the increasing number of flights and the need for further expansion with a longer runway to accommodate larger aircraft.
Less than 10-years after it opened, in 1957, there were discussions and planning for the relocation of the airport. Part of the plan was to sell the old airport site for the development of a tourist resort, in order to fund construction of a new airport to replace those facilities.
However, in the interim, in 1966, the runway was lengthened as a stop gap measure to accommodate the growing size of the interisland carriers’ planes.
On June 30, 1970, Kona Airport was closed and all operations were moved to the new Keāhole Airport with operations beginning at the new airport on July 1, 1970, with the new Queen Kaʻahumanu Highway built to that point.
For three summers, I worked for Aloha Airlines, starting at the “Old” Kona Airport – initially throwing bags, then as a ramp agent greeting and saying farewell to the planes as they landed/departed.
The summer of 1970, we moved the airline office furniture and supplies, slowing moving with our tugs and baggage carts piled high along the new Queen Kaʻahumanu Highway to the new Keāhole Airport (extension of Queen Kaʻahumanu Highway to Kawaihae was completed in 1975.)
After the old airport’s closure, its runway was used as a drag strip until the State and the County converted it to a recreational park around 1976. The runway is used as a parking area and access road for the former State park area.
While the State still owns the site, while I was at DLNR, the Board of Land and Natural Resources approved the set aside (assignment of management jurisdiction) of the former airport site to the County of Hawai‘i for park and recreational purposes.
In October 2010, the State completed the Kona International Airport at Keāhole Airport Master Plan which provides a long-range vision of the developments on airport property. Recently (March 2013,) an EIS preparation notice was filed for proposed airfield improvements and airport facilities related to that plan that are anticipated to be implemented within the next five to ten years.
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