The history of aviation on the Big Island dates back to June 10, 1911, when Clarence H Walker came to Hilo for an exhibition flight in his Curtiss Biplane. There were no airports on the island, so Hoʻolulu Park was selected for the runway.
The notoriety of this flight wasn’t really about its length, nor that it was the first flight on the Island of Hawaiʻi – its ending is its acclaim … but that is getting ahead of the story.
In 1911, Walker and Didier Masson teamed up and, on their way to Australia, stopped in Hawaiʻi. The former’s biplane was on board, so was the new Mrs Walker.
During May, 1911, Dexter P Dorgan of the Continental Aviation Company, San Francisco, arrived in Honolulu to arrange flight demonstrations by pilots Walker and Masson.
A young millionaire, Walker originally took up flying as a pastime. He built his own airplane at Salt Lake City but, unable to make it fly, decided to take bona fide flying lessons then buy an airplane of standard construction – purchasing a Curtiss biplane (60 hp) for $6,500.
From Honolulu Walker and his wife made their way Hilo; they were there for flight demonstrations by Walker out of Hoʻolulu Park, a horseracing facility in Hilo.
Inspecting the facilities, Walker noted the enclosure was too small for easy take-offs, but indicated a willingness to make a flight from the grounds. Two days were agreed upon, Saturday & Sunday, June 10 & 11. The Hilo Railway set up a special schedule to handle the expected crowds.
The flyer made several test flights prior to public demonstrations, thus giving Big Islanders their first view of an airplane in action. The paying crowd which had gathered was disappointingly small; most of the local people were planning on Sunday for the aerial show.
The aviator got ready.
The biplane rose rapidly amidst enthusiastic cheers. However, from the beginning, the 8-cylinder engine was heard to misfire, the plane’s wings tipping from side to side. He flew to the edge of the ocean, then decided on a quick landing and headed back to the field.
Then, a gust of wind caught and dashed the airplane into a 25-foot high lauhala tree. Four or five of the boys perched on the tall tree were knocked to the ground. The tall tree’s outstretched branches served to soften the plane’s fall, destroying the plane; Walker survived the crash.
Walker emerged from the wreckage and climbed onto the race track fence to show crowds, including his wife, that he was unhurt. This dramatic gesture was marred somewhat when fence boards gave way, sending Walker to the ground.
Repairs to his wrecked biplane were arranged with Hilo mechanics and the young couple boarded an interisland ship for Honolulu to join Masson and the others.
Walker later said, “I thought of landing in the ocean and then on the beach, but the water looked too deep and the beach was too full of boulders.”
The local paper carried the aviation story on its front page. It stated that spectators got their money’s worth, seeing the airplane fly “but also had a chance to realize the danger of the sport, when Aviator Walker’s biplane came to a sudden stop in the branches of a lauhala tree.”
Walker received $1,250, the contracted fee, and the promoter lost approximately $1,000 due to one day’s demonstrations having to be cancelled.
This was the first aircraft accident in the Islands.
That didn’t deter the dream of aviation on the Big Island; 8-years later (May 9, 1918,) Army Major Harold Clark and Sgt Robert Gray left Kahului Harbor on the second leg of their flight from Honolulu to Hilo.
Their Curtiss R-6 seaplane got lost in the dense clouds over Kaiwiki and Clark was forced to land in the forest near the volcano. Clark and Gray walked for two days before being found. Their plane was later recovered.
The first successful flight from Honolulu to the Big Island was made on March 24, 1919 by Army Maj Hugh Kneer in a US Army hydroplane A-1816. He landed in Kūhiō Bay. He carried a bag of US mail, thus beginning air mail service between Honolulu and Hilo by Army planes.
In December 1920, a ramp was built by the Hawaiian Contracting Company in Radio Bay in Hilo to haul visiting seaplanes from the bay onto land.
Army Maj. Gen. Charles P Summerall visited Hilo on September 23, 1921 to look for sites for a landing field on the Big Island. He recommended that the county build a landing field 600-feet long and 200-feet wide in or near Hoʻolulu Park. Despite the recommendations of both the Army and the Hilo Board of Trade, the County of Hilo failed to finance the airstrip.
Reportedly, an article in the Hilo Tribune Herald, Army Lt. Joseph A. Wilson flew his DeHaviland over Hilo on December 4, 1924, circled the city and dropped a message in Mooheau Park addressed to the Hilo Chamber of Commerce.
It read, “We would like to drop in and see you this morning if you only had a landing field. Air Service Unit, Wheeler Field, is visiting Parker Ranch. Kohala is condemning 12 acres of cane field for landing field. Lieut. JA Wilson.”
And thus began the effort to construct a landing field in Hilo. (Information here is from hawaii-gov.)