Morse Field (South Cape Airport)

On February 6, 1940, Governor’s Executive Order No. 869 set aside 182.38 acres of land for an addition to the Kalae Military Reservation as previously set aside by GEO No. 258, which was covered by Presidential EO No. 4635.  The Kalae Military Reservation was located at South Point and was previously an Army airfield and known as Morse Field.

In 1940, construction was underway on five buildings, runways, and access roads at Morse Field. Activities were centralized at this airport inasmuch as its location shortened a routing through Oahu, the trans-Pacific air ferry route to Australia and the Philippines by approximately 200 miles.

Construction work, originally under the Zone Constructing Quartermaster, was transferred to the District Engineer in late 1940.  A total of $1,534,793 was requested from the War Department in May for completion of the project; this amount later increased to $2,020,000.

The work on runways at Morse Field was suspended shortly after December 7, 1941 and all adjacent landing areas demolished and the strip destroyed as a precautionary measure against enemy use.

By December 28, 1941, gasoline storage facilities were complete, a water line installed, and mobilization buildings were more than half finished.  These projects were all that were deemed appropriate for continuance at the time.

Blocking of landing areas on the island occupied large amounts of time and manpower due to the extensive areas involved and the comparatively smooth surfaces surrounding the field, which could be used as landing fields.

After World War II, Morse Field was declared surplus by the military in1946.

On July 1, 1947, Act 32 of the 1947 Territorial Legislature placed Morse Field (South Cape) under the management of the Hawaii Aeronautics Commission.

In October 1947, rancher James Glover made a survey of the airport and found the buildings to be of no value except the corrugated roofing.  He said he was in favor of keeping the airport open so that slaughtered cattle could be shipped out.  He offered to maintain the airport at his own expense and to keep it open at all times as an emergency landing strip.  The HAC took his offer under advisement.

On November 3, 1947, the Commission made an application to the CAA for the South Cape Airport, in accordance with Section 16, Paragraph 555.5 of the Federal Airport Regulations; and upon acquisition to enter into an agreement with Mr. Glover.

The U.S. Army granted a right of entry into Morse Field to the Territory on January 16, 1948. Because of its remote location the HAC expected very little use by commercial airlines. Since satisfactory sites in this part of the island where aircraft could set down with safety in case of an emergency were non-existent, the Hawaii Aeronautics Commission decided to retain this strip as an emergency landing field.

For the next few years, the HAC performed only the minimum amount of work required to keep the field safe for emergency landings and occasional freight flights.  Members of the Hilo Airport staff made quarterly trips to Morse Field to perform minor maintenance and repair work.

The field was inspected on April 28, 1952 and found to be in bad condition due to erosion around the edges of the mats.  Hutchinson Plantation agreed to assist in putting the field back in shape and $500 was appropriated for this purpose.

It was not until August 30, 1952 that the property was finally restored to the Territory by Presidential Executive Order.

Morse Field was an earth field with a Marston Mat (steel grid) runway and was constructed as a temporary facility.  Cost of maintenance was such that conditions became increasingly worse until, in July 1953, the field was condemned as unsafe and was closed to all operations.

In the meantime, a new Federal Aid Highway project had been completed into Hilo, which caused the entire community to look to the Hilo Airport for their transportation needs. As a result, traffic into the field came to a standstill. The nearest settlement to the airport, Naalehu, was 16 miles by road and it was estimated that the population in the vicinity of Morse Field was only about 174 persons. Estimates for proper rehabilitation ran as high as $54,837.

On October 22, 1954, the Territorial Director of Aeronautics addressed a letter to the Regional Administrator, Civil Aeronautics Administration requesting abandonment of the airport. Reasons given were:

“Surplus to the Needs of the Community Because:

  • The continued increase in frequency of schedules into Hilo Airport made it gradually more desirable to travel and ship from Hilo.
  • On March 10, 1953, Federal Aid Highway Project No. F18(5) unit 1, was completed, offering an excellent highway direct to Hilo, which caused the entire community to look to the Hilo Airport for their transportation needs.

“Uneconomical to Rehabilitate and Operate Because:”

  • It serves such a small number of people.
  • Not strategically located to best serve these people.
  • Extreme weather conditions make it expensive to maintain.
  • Impractical even as an emergency field because of its isolated location, lack of communications and transportation.

“Unsafe for further operation because an airstrip subjected to these extreme conditions over a long period of time must be maintained continuously and this proved impossible because its limited use, even in the peak year of 1951, precluded an elaborate maintenance program.”

South Cape Airport was abandoned by the Territory on April 22, 1955 with the approval of the CAA and the land was returned to the Territorial Land Commissioner for disposal.

In December 1964, General Bernard A. Schriever of the AFSC announced that the Air Force would assume control of space tracking and communications from the Navy at South Point on February 1, 1965.  Then on September 30, 1965, the Station was closed.

It was later reopened, however, in support of Project Have Lent, a sounding rocket probe program to evaluate advanced ballistic reentry system experiments.  The close proximity and aspect angle of South Point to the optical site sensors located on the island of Maui were the primary reasons for launching the probes from this location.

In 1979, the Station was divided in two parcels located about 1.5 miles apart, containing approximately 5.9 acres each. One of the sites was the main operations area, while the other area was used for a boresight tower.  The Station was under the operational control of the Space and Missile Test Center (SAMTEC).

South Point AFS was one of the few Air Force installations in the State of Hawaii that did not fall under the control of the 15th Air Base Wing. It belonged to the Air Force Systems Command (AFSC), with headquarters at Andrews AFB

On February 11, 1983 Governor’s Executive Order No. 3172 canceled EO No. 258 (517 acres) and EO 3173 cancelled EO No. 869 (182.38 acres) at Morse Field.

Related content

Governor’s Executive Orders Kalae (Morse Field)

South Cape Airport (Morse Field) Air Traffic Statistics