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All Eyes to the Sky: Air travel and the World of Norfolk

All Eyes to the Sky: Air travel and the World of Norfolk

Few people alive today can remember a life without air travel. Those great machines that move through the sky seem so commonplace in today’s lifestyle, that it’s easy to forget that air travel is perhaps modern human’s greatest accomplishment: one that has changed the world almost completely. The addition of an airstrip to Norfolk Island during WWII instigated a dramatic lifestyle transformation for the Islanders. Much was lost in exchange for the new, as is often the way with progress. With easy access to the outside word, a direct relationship formed between air travel and Norfolk’s social and economic welfare – shaping Norfolk into the Island it is today. Yet where would an airstrip be without an airport? Without waving family, tears and a café? Seventy years of significant change are represented in physical form by the Norfolk Island Airport Terminal, which to this day remains a centrepiece of Island life.

There was a time, however, when air travel seemed a world away from the self-sufficient Islanders on Norfolk. Apart from the odd imported ration of flour, sugar and dripping – everything edible had to be produced by the Islanders themselves. Having heard only of airplanes through newspapers in the early 1900’s, the idea of easy access to an international selection of foods, toiletries and hardware like we do today would have seemed preposterous – let alone commercial air travel that could fly them across the globe in a day. According to Greg Quintal, however, anything seemed possible the moment he first saw ‘Madame Elijah’ the Gypsy Moth as it flew above Norfolk in 1931.

Greg Quintal, now 94 years old, recalls the day Norfolk Island had its first contact with air travel. Hearing a noise in the valley of his home he looked up to see an object flying in the sky. Terrified but also curious, he discovered that a plane, piloted by Englishman Francis Chichester, had landed at Cascade where one of the aircraft’s waterlogged floats was being repaired. Chichester then flew his Gypsy Moth to Emily Bay, welcomed by an entire Island of fascinated onlookers. Greg recalls it as a pivotal moment for Norfolk Island, and although he was unsure whether Chichester was “extremely brave or mad as a fool”, he admired the man’s ambition. In just one day, the eyes of Norfolk’s isolated community had been opened to a whole new world of possibilities.

Just over a decade later, Norfolk Islanders would accommodate approximately 200 planes a month as their Pacific Island became a centre for maritime reconnaissance and surveillance during WWII. The airstrip alone required one-eighth of the Island’s area, and at times the local population was outnumbered 3:1 by military personnel. No strangers to adjustment, the Islanders adapted to the times – though the memory of a great loss still lingers. The compulsorily acquired 171ha of land for the airstrip construction meant the destruction of many historical and cultural landmarks. Beloved homes and the original Rawson Hall community centre were destroyed, as were the local football field and horseracing track. One mile of historic, 30 metre high convict planted pines known as ‘The Avenue of Pines’ was also torn down, along with the precious ‘Tree of Knowledge’.

Lorna Christian remembers fondly that, “anything would go on the Tree of Knowledge”. On its impressive trunk, horse owners were forewarned of planes flying overhead, and families would often send a member to look for news. From birth and church notices, to weddings and movie times in the old Rawson Hall – the Tree of Knowledge was a living local newspaper and a cherished member of the Norfolk community. Perhaps Geoffrey McHugh, Chairman of the Works Committee to build the airstrip, best described the sentiment of the tree’s removal when he wrote of the pine, “whose knots were deeply embedded into the lives of all”. He believed the Islanders could take comfort in the knowledge that their losses were, “a sacrifice towards ultimate victory” and feel pride in their Island taking its, “rightful place in the affairs of today”. To a great extent this was true, though this loss of history for the sake of development will forever be bittersweet for generations of Norfolk Islanders.

The airstrip was completed in December 1942, with the first aircraft (a RNZAF Hudson) landing unofficially on Christmas Day to drop off food and parcels to the New Zealand forces. The airstrip has seen two major facelifts since then, with the 1982 tarseal upgrade to allow medium jet access, and the 2006 upgrade to allow A320 and B737-800 aircraft. In WWII alone, Norfolk’s airstrip serviced 16 different types of aircraft. Since the RNZAF ceased DC3 operations in 1947, Norfolk has had regular public transport services from Air New Zealand, Qantas, East West, Ansett, Norfolk Jet, Flight West, Alliance Airlines, Air Nauru, Our Airline, Jetconnect and Ozjet among others. In addition to these, there were irregular flights to Lord Howe and New Caledonia and also numerous cargo planes that frequented the Island. There has never been a dull moment in the history of Norfolk’s airport, and perhaps this is part of the building’s magnetism as a favourite meeting place for Norfolk’s people.

Built during WWII, the original airport stands timeless in the memories of many Islanders. George Smith, self-confessed plane enthusiast with, “a smell of kero on the mind”, recalls with a glint in his eye how young men, in their thongs and short rugby shorts, would ride to the airport on their Honda ‘90 motorbikes to check out girls coming off the plane. In the days before mobile phones and television, being somewhere at the right place and time were important for your social life – so if you didn’t know where anyone was, George explains, you would go to the airport. Some women, such as ‘Maa Nobby’, never missed a plane and so were reliable sources of airport gossip. Lorna Christian remembers embarking on her first DC4 flight, “dressed to the nines”. The original DC4 carried 64 passengers and travel was first class; passengers enjoyed a silver service four-course meal as hostess’s offered champagne and cigarettes. Entering or exiting the Island by plane was a true event – one worth taking free seat at the airport to watch.

There is even an unwritten protocol for Islanders who leave or arrive into Norfolk. Seeing someone ‘off’ would often mean a departure lounge full of friends and family. There could be a ‘nini’ (alcoholic drink) in the carpark for a final farewell, even for a 10am departure. Once waved onto the plane, it’s a race around in car convoy to the airstrip for the final goodbye. The more travel-savvy would find out the departing seat number, figure out which direction the plane would take off, and decide which side of the runway accordingly – hoping to catch a glimpse of a hand pressed to the plane window during takeoff. For those leaving the Island that last wave was an expected final farewell, which would put you in good stead for your travels. For those arriving into Norfolk, the mere sight of land looming into the distance after a long period from home would evoke strong emotions, some unable to resist a tarmac kiss upon arrival. Frantic waving and the occasional homemade banner can be seen near the outside gates, and often there are kids desperately waiting for the arriving family member to ‘divvy’ out mainland fast food smuggled into the island. As the first place to meet people, but also the last place you see some, Norfolk’s airport holds an almost sacred space in the lives of Norfolk’s people.

Visiting airforce and war planes have always caused a stir with Norfolk’s inhabitants, from the reminiscing elderly to the fascinated youth. Half the Island comes to watch the FA18 Hornets or the C17 Globemaster, and if there is a private jet on the tarmac, rumours will be rife within minutes. And if you believe the rumours – Norfolk has been a secret hideaway for almost every celebrity on planet Earth.

Living in a closed setting such as Norfolk has created a sixth sense in the Islanders when something is out of place. One particular instance in 2005 saw a recently departed aircraft circling the Island, arising suspicion in the Islanders. By the time the plane made an emergency landing back onto the tarmac, the entire population was lined up along the fence to watch the plane land, jumping in unison for joy when the plane landed safely. Recently in May there was a plane coming in to land from New Zealand with a 30-40 knot crosswind on the runway. Once again, great numbers of curious onlookers flocked to the airstrip. This may seem like odd behaviour, yet it can partly be explained by Norfolk’s reliance on air travel and our intimate relationship to the passengers on board – whether friend, family or visitor.

Norfolk Island had tourists as early as 1946, yet tourism began in earnest in the 1960’s. Apart from various food and seed exports, income from tourism was, and still is, the lifeblood of Norfolk’s economy. Regular flights from Australia and New Zealand opened up Norfolk Island to the world, changing forever the self-sufficient lifestyle the Islanders practiced before WWII. Visitors to the Island loved Norfolk’s laid-back lifestyle and its quirkiness – no seatbelts, cows on the main street, and bargain shopping. Working as a luggage porter in his teens, George Smith remembers that tourist bags were always heavy from shopping upon departure, as were local’s bags upon arrival back home to Norfolk. Some Islanders would bring back cars and motorbikes on the plane, however for some reason it was illegal to bring a TV set. With regular air travel the youth of Norfolk could enjoy easy access to schooling overseas, and initiatives such as the‘Year 6 School Tour’ were set up to familiarise the young Islanders with the Australian mainland.

As cherished as the old airport was, the opening of the newly constructed terminal in 1999 was welcomed as a fresh modern face for Norfolk Island tourism. Bart Murray, general manager of Burnt Pine Travel, is responsible for many movements at the Norfolk Island airport terminal including flight check-in, freight handling and plane refuelling. As an Air New Zealand agent Bart experiences first-hand the importance of regularity and reliability of flights to Norfolk’s economy. In the absence of an established cruise ship industry, Norfolk Islanders are almost completely reliant on the airline for tourist numbers. These tourist numbers greatly effect spending on the Island, which in turn effects local industry and thus local employment. Not only does the airport form the first and last port of contact for tourists to Norfolk, the smooth movement of all its parts often define the holiday experience for the Norfolk visitor.

For the Norfolk locals, reliable air travel is imperative to the convenient and modern lifestyle enjoyed today. Not only do flights carry beloved friends and family or provide medivacs for medical emergencies – they also provide an avenue for material goods to arrive quickly to the Island, such as mail and medical supplies. Recently, due to a cargo ship being unable to unload, the Island ran out of stock feed. Some 9000kg of stock feed plus thousands of eggs were air freighted into the Island, much to the relief of local families and industry. Prior to 1996, Vincent Airfreight operated a freighter service every Friday, in which some interesting items were moved into the Island.

In addition to horses, a Brahman Bull, cars, a boat and a couple of cartons of cigarettes, a small tractor was once brought in, broken down and packed onto an aircraft pallet. When the forklift and scissor lift were unable to lift the pallet, staff quickly realised that something was wrong. As it turned out the tyres were full of water which someone had forgotten to empty before loading and had become the proud owner of 2 tonne of Brisbane water imported at $2.50/kg.

In March this year, Air New Zealand’s first Australian flights commenced, following a successful Australian government tender bid. Their Airbus A320 aircraft seats 152 passengers and now connects Norfolk Island to Auckland Brisbane and Sydney, with 5 flights a week. Norfolk Island’s time-honoured relationship with Air New Zealand will be celebrated on Christmas day this year as Norfolk Island commemorates 70 years of air travel. Not only will this be a physical reminder of our connection to the outside world, but also acknowledgement of the great influence air travel has had on Norfolk’s society and culture. A large mosaic now hangs in the arrival hall of Norfolk’s airport, gifted by the Community Arts Society during the sesquicentenary celebrations of 2006. The mosaic, which highlights the transformational milestones in Norfolk’s Bounty history, includes a large airstrip – a fitting tribute to a monumental event in Norfolk’s past. As a centrepiece of Island life, the Norfolk Island Airport Terminal now stands not only as a link to Norfolk’s past, but also as the fibre that weaves together Norfolk’s future.


Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in YourWorld, Volume 02 Issue 03, 2012. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.



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