Rotorua’s first airport was known variously as the Rotorua Aero Club Aerodrome, the Municipal Aerodrome, Whakarewarewa Aerodrome and the Rotorua Airfield.
Planes landing in Rotorua however started c1919 and used the Arawa Park Racetrack and Vaughans Farm on Te Ngae Road. Two young Rotorua lads trained at the Walsh Flying School, Kohimarama near Auckland c1918, Mr. Eric Roe and Mr. P. A. Kusabs. (Stafford, 1983)
In 1922 an aeroplane piloted by Captain Brake was taking passengers on short flights from the racecourse, on one such flight Captain Brake had to make an emergency landing on the narrow beach at the back of the Postmaster Bath. No further damage to the aeroplane occurred and his two passengers were not injured. (New Zealand Herald, 1922)
In 1929 the Auckland Star reported that:
A De Haviland Moth aeroplane piloted by Captain T. W. White, with Mr G.W. Stead as passenger arrived at Arawa Park at 9.00am from Hastings, after a flight of 1 hour and 40 minutes. (Auckland Star, 1929).
During the 1920s planes were also conducting short passenger rides from Vaughans Farm, Te Ngae Road. Hamilton Airways Ltd. operated 3 Gypsy Moths c.1929-1930. (Stafford, 1983)
When the first Rotorua Aero Club formed in c1930, members were responsible for constructing a landing strip on land that was part of the State Forestry block. Rotorua Aero club later initiated an amalgamation with others in the Bay of Plenty. Rotorua and Bay of Plenty Aero Club was duly formed in 1938 with Mayor T. Jackson as its president, at this time Mr. S.J. Blackmore, of Hamilton, had agreed to act as an instructor, he also owned the aircraft, a Sports Avian, which was used until the club were able to purchase one. They then set about planning an Air Pageant for Easter even though the club did not own any aeroplanes as yet.
About the same time Rotorua Airways Ltd. was formed with mostly Aero Club members, some 20 men were listed as the owners. It was however a short lived venture and they amalgamated with the Waikato Airways company in September of 1930, but had ceased business by March 1934. (Stafford, 1983)
Pilot training began and it was acknowledged that Blackmore had trained ‘a record number’. (Rotorua Morning Post, 1941). Their first fully qualified pilot was Mr Basil Smith (New Zealand Herald, 1939)
In 1931 a plane crash was recorded in the newspapers. The plane owned and piloted by Captain Money hit an air pocket on take-off from the Rotorua Aerodrome and crashed into the garden of a house opposite. His passengers, Mr J Fortune and Mr W.G. Setchell, were unharmed. (Horowhenua Chronicle, 1931). This was however not the first plane to crash at or near the aerodrome, others were recorded by the news media of the day prior to this one and quite a lot more in the next decade.
Stafford tells of the first ever airmail delivery arrived which in Rotorua on the 10th December 1931:
Two sizeable bags of mail were handed off for Rotorua and the Postmaster, Mr G. Nelson, handed a bag of over 300 letters as Rotorua’s contribution to the venture.
Some facilities were provided by the Borough Council in the form of a hangar. Also around this time a new east-west runway of 680 yards was completed, under the supervision of the Borough engineer. (Stafford, 1983)
Famous aviators visited Rotorua, flying in and landing either at Vaughans Farm or Copeland Smith’s farm. The most notable was Sir Charles Kingsford Smith who flew his “Southern Cross” in January 1933. While in Rotorua he took intrepid adventurers up in the plane for joyrides. (Stafford, 1983)
In 1935 Stan Blackmore, (Previously of Hamilton Airways Ltd c1929 and Waikato Aviation c.1930) applied for permission to conduct his business from the Municipal Aerodrome. He was granted one year’s full use for free because he was a licenced instructor. Stan Blackmore, known locally as ‘Blackie’, was also the first to make a mercy flight picking up a seriously ill person and flying the person to the Rotorua Hospital. Waikato Aviation was changed to Blackmores Air Services Ltd. in 1947 and operated in Rotorua until 1977. Blackmore's was sold to James Aviation in 1951 after Stan Blackmore retired. (Daily Post, 1983)
Work is almost completed on the new hangar at the Borough Aerodrome for which £600 was included in the last estimates of the Rotorua Borough Council. Comprehensive plans were provided by the Public Works Dept. to provide for future needs and extensions at the aerodrome. (New Zealand Herald, 1941).
In 1941 Prime Minister Fraser opens the new hangar and a new Aero Club rooms:
The new hangar is described as “of modern design, is capable of housing four planes…while the club-house adjacent is equipped with all facilities”. (Rotorua Morning Post, 1941)
Also in 1941 a Moth bi-plane belonging to the Aero club had to make a forced landing on a vacant plot across the road from the Aerodrome as the engine cut out. The pilot Mr. H. Boucher was unharmed and passenger Mr. E. Shaw received minor injuries, however the “plane’s undercarriage was wrenched off, and would be out of commission for some time” (Rotorua Morning Post, 1941)
Rotorua Aerodrome was taken over by the RNZAF from 1 Aug 1942 and young recruits were stationed in Rotorua for their initial training. Stan Blackmore was allowed to store his aircraft in the existing hangar because he had just paid for a 3 year lease. (Stafford, 1983)
After the war in 1947, the Rotorua Aero Club, reformed and resumed flying instruction for budding aviators and a nurse, Marie Watt, was one of their first pupils, and the first of her class to make a solo flight.
Commercial use of the aerodrome resumed and NAC announced their first regular service was to begin on 27 Sept 1948, with a ‘Lockheed Electra’ named the ‘Kuaka’ which could accommodate up to 10 passengers and 2 crew. (Rotorua Post, 1948).
By 1950 the era of agricultural top-dressers begins and by 1954 James Aviation is offering a regular daily passenger flight ‘Rotorua – Kawerau – Kinleith – Mangere’ (Rotorua Post, 1954). Helicopters made their debut at the aerodrome on 12th April 1955, about 6000 people went to see it and paid for a short ride. The first passenger was the Mayoress Mrs A. M. Linton. (Rotorua Post, 1955)
In 1951, James Aviation bought Blackmores’s Air Services when Stan Blackmore retired and by 1959 James Aviation Rotorua Ltd. is formed, and becomes a fixture at the Rotorua Aerodrome. (Stafford, 1983)
In December of 1956 NAC were forced to cease flights into the Fenton Street airport after retiring their smaller Domonie aircraft. A new Heron aircraft had crashed while attempting to take off in September of 1955, apparently the nose wheel ploughed an 11ft furrow in the field slid along the runway for another 36ft and then digging in again and coming to a stop. (Rotorua Post, 1955)
Our most notable visitor at this time was the newly crowned Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. They were flown from the Rotorua Aerodrome to Gisborne in one of the new NAC Heron aircraft. (Stafford, 1983).
Rotorua services to Auckland did not resume until Bay of Plenty Airways commenced a service to Auckland with a seven seater Aero Commander Airliner on 2 September 1959 and in the same year service to Wellington which was used extensively by Rotorua MP Harry Lapwood from 1960. The service came to a tragic end when the plane crashed on Mt Ruapehu with all lives lost, 21 November 1961. NAC arranged James Aviation to provide a feeder service from Rotorua to Tauranga and Hamilton which continued until a new aerodrome could be built in Rotorua. (Davis, 2003)
A new era in the life of air services to and from Rotorua begins:
New Rotokawa airport negotiations had begun in 1957 and by September that year Mayor Linton announces that “quite definitely that the site will be Rotokawa” although Civil Aviation said the ‘soil tests were not as good as they might be’. (Rotorua Post, 1957)
On the 11th of November 1963 the following article was published on the first day of business at the airport:
Rotorua, the centre of New Zealand’s tourist industry, rejoined the national airways network this morning – just a year after work began on the £350,000 airport at Rotokawa. The seven year break ended when a South Pacific Airways of New Zealand Viewmaster touched down…
A special N.A.C. inaugural flight carrying 26 mayors and deputy mayors from around the north island along with Guide Rangi were flown to Wellington where they were greeted by the Mayor of Wellington and Managers of N.A.C. (Daily Post, 1963)
The official opening of the airport took place on the 3rd October 1964 at 2.00pm., by Sir Keith Holyoake, Prime Minister of New Zealand. An air pageant took place from 10. 35am., with 5 RNZA Vampire Jets arriving in formation from Ohakea. The first NAC Friendship aircraft to touch down in Rotorua arrived at 11.30am with the Prime Minister on board. (Daily Post, 1964)
New sections were laid out on the old aerodrome land and Fenton Park became Rotorua's newest suburb. Mayor Linton on opening the Parade of Homes at Fenton Park, remarked that:
Up until today, confirmed sales have amounted to £289,000, just £1000 short of the half-way mark… when sales were complete, Rotorua would have achieved a new airport at virtually no cost to the district, something few, if any other centres could boast. (Daily Post, 1967)
In the years that follow:
First for the Rotorua area in 1967 a tourist flight company began operating from the Rotorua Airport ‘Helicopter Service & Safaris’ financed by Don Wishart and managed by Hank Whitfield with an additional pilot George Johnson. (Stafford, 1983)
1971 Rotorua Aero Club purchase a seven seater Cessna in order to launch their new tourist flights service which was named Volcanic ‘Wunderflites’ and begins officially on 2 May 1971 with Capt. Fred Ladd as its pilot. (Stafford, 1983)
Civil Aviation announce that a permanent control tower has becomes necessary on 4thJune 1971. Opens 14 November 1974. (Stafford, 1983)
23 March 1975, NAC opens its new building in Amohau Street, after outgrowing the Eruera Street office which had opened c.1963. The new purpose built, modern with a touch of luxury and thermal heating. The exterior was designed by Rotorua architect Mr. C. Deacon and the interior by NAC staff of Wellington. (Daily Post, 1975)
Stafford, D.M. (1983). Flying the thermal skies. Thermalart Productions.
Gavin, B. (2003). To and from the Bay: by Speedy Aero Commander. In R. Waugh, Taking off: pioneering small airlines of New Zealand 1945-1970. (pp.142-157). Kynaston Charitable Trust.
Rotorua Printers (1964). Rotorua Airport official opening: Saturday, 3rd October, 1964. Rotorua Printers.
New Zealand Herald. (1922, March 27). Aeroplane at Rotorua: a forced landing. New Zealand Herald.
Auckland Star. (1929, 20 May). Hastings-Rotorua flight: journey in 100 minutes. Auckland Star.
Horowhenua Chronicle. (1931, September 15). Three seater plane crashes at Rotorua. Horowhenua Chronicle.
New Zealand Herald. (1939, June 21). Rotorua Aero Club. New Zealand Herald.
New Zealand Herald. (1941, March 26). Rotorua Aerodrome. New Zealand Herald.
Rotorua Morning Post. (1938, November 17). Aero Club: formed in Rotorua. Rotorua Morning Post
Rotorua Morning Post. (1941, April 23). New hangar and clubroom: Rotorua’s aviation facilities. Rotorua Morning Post.
Rotorua Morning Post. (1941, October 20). Plane’s forced landing: Rotorua Aerodrome. Rotorua Morning Post.
Rotorua Morning Post. (1947, September 23). Solo aero flight. Rotorua Morning Post.
Rotorua Morning Post. (1948, December 16). Air traffic: Auckland direct: Rotorua service to begin Monday. Rotorua Morning Post.
Rotorua Post. (1954, December 16). Daily air service starts Monday: Rotorua-Kawerau-Kinleith link with Mangere. Rotorua Post.
Rotorua Post. (1957, September 20). Rotorua’s Aerodrome will be sited at Rotokawa, says Mayor. Rotorua Post.
Daily Post. (1963, November 11). Isolation ends – tourists welcome air travel. Daily Post.
Daily Post. (1964, October 3). Jets ‘christen’ new city airport. Daily Post.
Daily Post. (1964, October 5). Govt. to pay for airport facilities. Daily Post.
Daily Post. (1967, March 18). Fenton Park sales near halfway. Daily Post.
Daily Post. (1975, March 22). Opening of new aircentre. Daily Post