The Beginning of Aviation on the Big Island

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 Hoolulu Park was selected for the runway.  Walker was able to get a few feet off the ground in his trial flight. Later Walker attempted to fly over the city.  The engine on his $6,500 aircraft began missing and he lost altitude rapidly.  He crashed minutes later into a lauhala tree as he attempted to land, destroying the plane but surviving the crash.  This was the first aircraft accident in the Territory of Hawaii.

That didn’t deter the dream of aviation on the Big Island as eight years later, on 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 U.S. Army hydroplane A-1816.  He landed in Kuhio Bay.  He carried a bag of U.S. 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 Hoolulu Park.  Despite the recommendations of both the Army and the Hilo Board of Trade, the County of Hilo failed to finance the airstrip.

Parker Ranch arranged for the use of a pasture near Waimea as a landing field for Army aircraft on August 2, 1923.  Summerall sent staff to the island to lay out the landing strip.  There was no money for its construction, so a local resident gave $100 cash so that work could commence.

Six Japanese laborers began clearing land for a Kilauea Landing Field on October 6, 1923.  It was the first airport on the Big Island.  The first aircraft to land there was piloted by Army Lt. John M. McCulloch on November 9, 1923 in a DeHaviland DH-4A.  The Kilauea Landing Field was destroyed by volcanic eruptions occurring May 10—27, 1924, so the Parker Ranch field was used for the first time on May 23, 1924.

According to 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. J. A. Wilson.”

And thus began the effort to construct a landing field in Hilo.