"I have much pleasure in declaring the Rarotonga airport open"

Queen Eliabeth II arrives in Rarotonga

With those words on 29 January 1974, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II ushered in a new era for the Cook Islands. The NZ$14 million airport opened the nation to the world for visitors and islanders alike.

But hers was by no means the first aircraft to touch down in the Cook Islands. Perhaps surprisingly, planes have been a part of life in Rarotonga and Aitutaki for more than 80 years. As the airport celebrates the 50th anniversary of the official opening, this is a look at some of the history of aviation in the Cook Islands.

1940s: The first airstrips and the first aerodrome

The Northern group island of Penrhyn/Tongareva (in 1942) and Aitutaki (in 1943) were the first to have airstrips, thanks to American troops who built them as part of an alternative supply route in case World War II hostilities reached this far east. 

Work underway on Rarotonga aerodrome

New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser recognised the need for an aerodrome on Rarotonga in 1943. Construction began early in 1944 and was completed by November that year. The end result was a 5,000 ft (1.5 km) long runway surfaced with stabilised coral.

It was the Royal New Zealand Air Force who then started the first regular fornightly service from New Zealand to Rarotonga. That continued until 1947 when the New Zealand National Airways Corporation (NAC)  - the predecessor of Air New Zealand - took over using DC3 aircraft

Constructing Raro aerodrome

1950s: The Flying Boats

TEAL caoral route poster

The NAC service was withdrawn in 1951 but a new era began when TEAL (Tasman Empire Airways Ltd) launched the Coral Route from Auckland to Tahiti calling en route to refuel at Aitutaki. A proving flight on 28 November, 1951 was followed by the start of a commercial service on 27 December. And because Tahiti didn't have an airport at the time, flying boats operated the service  until 15 September, 1960

Solent Flying Boat

'Aranui' was one of two Solent Flying Boats that visited Aitutaki on Thursdays and Sundays each week to and from Tahiti. It was also used on the very last coral route flight
Photo: Queen Manarangi Tutai

Passengers landed on an area marked out in the water with buoys, and then anchored in Akaiami Bay. TEAL had a small fuel depot at Akaiami and aviation fuel was pumped out to the plane using a refuelling barge. The remains of the old passenger wharf are still there and you can stay in Gina's Akaiami Beach Lodge next to it.  Owner, Queen Manarangi Tutai recounts this childhood memory of a sea plane coming into land

" Lower and lower she would come, until she appeared to be just skimming the wavelets. Then, like a big graceful swan, she settled on the water and gently losing speed, taxied up to the mooring buoy. In the peace of Akaiami, I can still remember the deafening roar of those big engines, and the silence that followed when they were stopped."

CLICK HERE TO WATCH A FILM from the archives of Auckland Museum recalling the elegant luxury of the flying boats and a touchdown on Aitutaki 

TEAL flying boat at Aitutaki, Cook Islands TEAL flying boat at Aitutaki

1960s and 1970s: A new airport

Rarotonga airport construction sign

When TEAL withdrew their flying boats, the government started looking at how it could upgrade the 1940s aerodrome so larger planes could land on Rarotonga. Land was reclaimed from the lagoon, a taro swamp was excavated and replaced with sand, millions of tons of soil were shifted and the runway strengthened, widened and lengthened to 7,800 feet (2,377 metres). The final bill came to NZ$14 million nearly all footed by the New Zealand government. And as this was happening the first Tourist Authority was starting its own work. 

Rarotonga airport terminal 1974

The new airport terminal waiting to welcome its first passengers

Rarotonga-Auckland first day cover 1973

"A new era"

A weekly New Zealand-Cook Islands service began on 1 December, 1973 and it's commemorated in this first day cover. 150 people were on board the Air New Zealand DC8 including VIPs. In his welcoming speech, Premier Albert Henry said it was the beginning of a new era for the Cook Islands, and New Zealand's Civil Aviation Minister Dr Martin Finlay spoke about the development of tourism and the advantages and benefits for the Islands. But it wasn't until 28 May, 1977 that the first tourist hotel, the Rarotongan Resort was officially opened

29 January, 1974: A Royal Opening

Queen Elizabeth II welcomed to Rarotonga

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II touched down at the new airport on 28 January, 1974 to a welcome from huge crowds and 10,000 warriors who carried her from plane to terminal on a portable throne reserved for royalty an​d high ranking chiefs. At the opening ceremony the following day the Prime Minister highlighted the significance of the occasion.

"To us Cook Islanders this airport promises to be a stepping stone in our journey to economic self sufficiency but we realise that we will have to meet new pressures and new challenges to change our way of life"

There's more about the official opening and other royal connections with the Islands here

1978: Opening up the Islands

February, 1978 was another historic date in the evolution of the airport when domestic airline, Air Rarotonga started operations, and today it's opened up the Islands like never before. Although the first domestic service between Rarotonga and Aitutaki started in 1973 it was Air Rarotonga that built a network which today serves 9 of the 13 inhabited islands. It also provides a sort of flying doctor service shuttling medical emergency patients from the outer islands to the main hospital on Rarotonga. And a footnote to the story of domestic travel…the pilot of that predecessor flight in 1973 was Ewan Smith who is today the managing director of Air Rarotonga.

Air Rarotonga planes on tarmac

From then to now

New terminal at Rarotonga airport Rarotonga airport sign Exerior of Rarotonga airport

New arrivals and departures terminals were opened in 2010

Today's airport welcomes more than 130,000 people a year with daily international flights. It's also the base for domestic airline, Air Rarotonga.   MORE about inter-island flights

Rarotonga airport departure area mural Murla at the end of the runway, Rarotonga airport Water fountain enhances the exterior of Rarotonga airport

Murals were specially commissioned as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations and water fountains added to enhance the exterior of the airport

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Much of the historical information has been derived from the excellent book "Coming in on a Jet Plane" by Colin Hall published jointly by Colin and the Cook Islands Airport Authority in April, 1994. Pacific Islands Monthly and the archives of the New Zealand National Library were other sources. Photos are variously: Cook Islands Government, Cook Islands News, Air Rarortonga, the author's own and from the book. Photo in page header of  commemorative medal presented to Her Majesty used with permission of the Royal Collection Trust/All Rights Reserved.