Aviation and aircraft first had a presence in the Cook Islands as allied military forces deployed across the South Pacific islands on their way to eventually defeating Japanese forces during World War 2.
Coral runways were constructed and American bases established in the Cook Islands northernmost atoll Penrhyn, and another at Aitutaki. Although hostilities never reached the Cook Islands, Aitutaki became the temporary home to several thousand US Marines for the latter part of War. During this time the islands were visited by numerous military aircraft including Boeing B17 bombers, PBY Catalina and Sunderland flying boats, and the venerable DC3. High profile visitors to Aitutaki during that period included Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the then US President.
The war produced a wealth of experienced pilots and aviation expertise leading to the rapid post-war establishment of civil airlines expanding route networks around the World.
In New Zealand, the art of island hopping across the Pacific was born when Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL) began operating the Coral Route in 1951.
The TEAL service started out as a mail route flying from Auckland to Fiji (7.30 hours) then to Samoa (3.45 hours), Cook Islands (Aitutaki 5.00 hours) and eventually Tahiti (4.05 hours).
The Coral Route became reknowned as the air route to exotic Tahiti and appealing to the rich and famous including a number of Hollywood stars.
The Shorts Solent flying boat carried a maximum of 45 passengers at 220 knots (400kph) in luxurious surroundings within 2 sound proof decks offering silver service dining, with meals cooked to order by an onboard chef.
In the Cook Islands the Solents touched down in the Aitutaki lagoon and moored near the small, uninhabited motu (islet) of Akaiami. After being ferried ashore to the wharf passengers would walk to a small thatched ‘terminal’ for refreshments while the aircraft was refueled for the next leg.
There were occasions where adverse weather or a mechanical problem required an overnight stay on the motu and word would be sent to the Aitutaki mainland after which a small flotilla of canoes and craft would set sail with kai kai ( an island feast), drummers and dancing girls to entertain the international guests.
Today the location of the old TEAL Terminal is host to a small resort run by the local land owners. In 1954 Douglas DC-6 land based aircraft replaced the Solent on the Auckland-Fiji leg with TEAL continuing to operate the Solent from Fiji onward to Tahiti until the last Solent IV Aranui ZK-AMO flew the Coral Route in September 1960. Today this grand old lady of the South Pacific is on permanent display at MoTAT, Western Springs, Auckland.
In the early 1960s the flying boat service was replaced by DC3s and later HS748 turboprops operated by Air Pacific and Polynesian Airlines. This service made a weekly circuit flying from Nadi (Fiji), Faleolo (Samoa) to Rarotonga and Aitutaki return. The short grass runway at Rarotonga limited the size of aircraft that could service the island and at times transport was provided from New Zealand by RNZAF Hercules aircraft.
On 4th November 1973 the Cook Islands entered the jet age when the first scheduled Air New Zealand McDonnell Douglas DC8 touched down at Rarotonga’s new international airport with it’s 2300 metre concrete runway.
The airport was later officially opened during a visit by H.M. Queen Elizabeth II in January 1974.
In 2003 Aitutaki Airport was upgraded with a sealed 1800 metre runway and night lighting.