Waimea-Kohala Airport is located south of Kamuela Town at an elevation of 2,671 feet in the northern portion of the Big Island of Hawaii.
On May 12, 1928, the Governor set aside 550.46 acres of land in Mana, Waimea, Kona, for a Territorial airport by Executive Order 331. The airport was to be under the control and management of the Territorial Aeronautical Commission.
The predecessor of Waimea Kohala Airport was a U.S. Marine Airfield known as Bordelon Field which was just across the highway. It was the Kamuela Airport from 1946-1957.
In October 1946, the Territorial Department of Public Works published a Master Plan to construct a Class III Airport in Kamuela. The proposed airport had one runway of 4,650 feet by 100 feet.
Kamuela was the headquarters of Parker Ranch and was 39 miles by road northeast of the Kailua Airport site and 25 miles by road over the Kohala Mountains from Upolu Airport.
Kamuela was the site of one of the largest training camps of the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific Fleet. Incidental to the training program an airstrip was constructed for small planes. The strip was successfully used by non-scheduled operators flying small planes and also, on several occasions, by DC-3s but the strip was hazardous for DC-3 operation. By action of the land owner the airport was closed. Prior to the closing of the airport it had been used to ship vegetable crops to Honolulu.
Waimea was a popular tourist center before the war and tourist facilities, which were occupied by Marines during World War II, were converted to tourist facilities.
The DPW justified the construction of the new airport as necessary for the direct shipment of vegetables to Honolulu; its importance in around-the-island tours for tourists, many of whom would remain in Waimea for several days of recreation at Parker Ranch; as an incentive to private flying; and to open up the area and encourage its increased development as a vacation home center for residents of Oahu.
The project had the approval of established local air operators and was consistent with the Hawaii Visitors’ Bureau program. However, the proposal had no status with the Territorial government in 1947.
When Bordelon Field/Kamuela Airport was deemed unsuitable for development as a modern airport because of its terrain, a new site was sought. From September 1949 to September 1950, data on winds, ceilings and visibility was collected.
The HAC received a letter from Parker Ranch on February 7, 1950 relative to the alignment of the new Kamuela Airport requesting that the airstrip be located below the highway instead of above the high as currently staked out by the Territorial Department of Public Works. On June 20, 1950 a field survey for the location of the new Kamuela Airport was started by the Territorial Department of Public Works. The survey and topographic plans for Kamuela Airport were completed on September 25, 1950 and the alignment as originally established was found to be satisfactory. Surveys and estimates for the new Kamuela Airport were completed by the DPW in January 1951 and estimated the cost of construction at $667,000. The landing strip was to be 5,200 feet by 100 feet.
Preliminary plans for the new airport were approved by the Hawaii Aeronautical Commission in April 1951 and in October 1951 bids were called for the first phase of construction to include grading, paving of the runway, fencing and a water supply to the airport.
On January 28, 1952, the construction of the new Kamuela Airport was awarded to Hawaiian Dredging Company for a sum of $694,396, with an additional amount of $60,000 for contingencies. The Commission agreed that the new terminal should be in the style of a ranch house using native material. T. A. Vierra was selected as the architect to draw up plans for the freight and passenger terminals.
Construction was begun on February 20, 1952 on the new Kamuela Airport including a runway, water main and fencing. The runway was designed to be 5,200 feet long to accommodate the new Convairs. When finished, the airstrip, together with the joint passenger and freight terminal, would represent an investment of nearly $1 million. It was foreseen that the new airport would aid the development of the agricultural industry in Hawaii. Air freight traffic at the old Kamuela was sizeable. The field would be served by scheduled airlines, non-scheduled passenger airlines and freight air carriers.
On March 13, 1952 architect Vierra’s estimate of $55,000 for construction of the passenger and freight terminals at the airport was approved. Later on August 28, 1952 Vierra was hired to provide architectural services for the terminal building construction. Cost: $4,500.
Construction of the terminal began in April 1953.
Initial grading and surfacing of the new airport was completed in June 1953 at a cost of $786,449.
The new Kamuela Airport runway located in Waimea Valley near Kamuela town was completed in April 1953 at a cost of $864,441. In May 1953, Hawaiian Airlines began DC-3 cargo operations at the new airport and on July 1, 1953 it started scheduled passenger service three times a week. The paved runway was 5,100 feet long and 100 feet wide. The joint passenger-freight terminal building was nearly complete on June 30 at a cost of $79,749. The terminal featured a ranch house design and was the first of a combination passenger-freight structure in the island. This airport was completed entirely with Territorial funds without Federal Aid.
The nearby old Kamuela Airport, formerly a wartime U.S. Marine airfield known as Bordelon Field, was inactivated.
Air transportation officials believed that the new airport’s biggest potential was in air cargo development.
The airport was dedicated on August 30, 1953. The one-story, wood frame passenger and freight terminal building was completed on October 7, 1953 at a cost of $58,988.
In 1954 projects in the planning stage for airport included: refrigeration facilities for the Terminal Building, $20,000.
On August 22, 1955 the HAC adopted the rate of $9.50 per day for intermittent use of the ticket office at the airport. In June 1956 construction of a Medium Intensity Lighting System for Runway 4-22 was completed at a cost of $63,890.
The airport parcel of 89.718 acres was acquired by the Territory of Hawaii from Richard Smart. The control and management of the land was given through Governor’s Executive Order 1780 dated May 21, 1957 to the Hawaii Aeronautics Commission. The Territory also purchased an avigation easement on portions of the Hawaiian Home Lands of Puukapu.
During the next decade, there were few improvements to the airport:
- Approach light beacons were installed at Kamuela Airport as navigational aids in 1959.
- A project to seal coat and stripe the runway was awarded on June 9, 1965 at a cost of $22,036.
The Island of Hawaii’s County Council adopted Waimea as the official name for the area in which the airport was located. A 1969 legislative resolution requested that the airport be designated as Waimea-Kohala Airport to prevent confusion with Waimea, Kauai. The Mayor of Hawaii, Shunichi Kimura, reflecting the desires of the County Council and residents around Kamuela, asked that the name of the airport be changed from Kamuela Airport to Waimea-Kohala Airport. This was approved by Governor John Burns.
In 1970, Architect Edward Sullam was commissioned to draw up architectural plans for additions to the terminal facilities, including the lobby and baggage claim facilities, as well as a parking lot and ground transportation improvements. The contract for this work was awarded in May 1971 for $389,700 and completed August 16, 1972.
On October 1, 1970 Waimea-Kohala Airport was placed under the control of a new position in the State Airports Division, the North Hawaii District Superintendent.
Resurfacing of Runway 4-22 was completed on January 19, 1971 at a cost of $214,709. A contract was awarded on May 13, 1971 for additions and alterations which would double both the terminal building and the parking area, and provide for the expected growth of the North and South Kohala districts, $413,361.
In 1971 The FAA began to implement the Airport and Airways Development Act of 1970 under a plan entitled the Airport Certification Program. Under this program, every airport serving air carriers certified by the Civil Aeronautics Board must maintain certificates from the FAA to remain in operation.
This program imposed an entirely new system of inspections, record-keeping and reporting on airports and required additional funds and personnel to meet its stringent requirements.
The FAA also published a “Notice of Proposed Rule-Making on Aviation Security” and began to implement an airport security system. This new program also meant new obligations for the Airports Division and required equipment expenditures and personnel increases.
Under the requirements of the Airport Certification Program, an Airports Division Procedures Manual was produced in draft form and manuals were also drafted for each airport serving CAB-certified carriers.
After a lapse of several years, the FAA revived a system of inspections under its Compliance Program, and inspected all airports within the State. Hawaii’s airports passed inspection in every important respect, and corrective measures were initiated to correct some minor instances of non-compliance, such as lack of adequate clear zones.
- A quick-response rescue vehicle was ordered for Waimea Kohala Airport in June 1972. The vehicle could transport the fire chief, break-in tools and fire suppressant chemicals to a crash within three to four minutes, while slower equipment was still on the way. The vehicle carried 500 gallons of water, 55 gallons of foam concentrate and 500 pounds of dry chemical.
- Additions and alterations to the passenger terminal lobby and baggage claim area were completed in August 1972 at a cost of $413,361.
- Security fencing was completed in May 1974 at a cost of $8,421.
- A contract was awarded for renovation of the waiting lobby and baggage claim area in December 1974 at a cost of $51,855.
- In 1975 Waimea-Kohala Airport had two airport operations and maintenance men and was served by six volunteer firemen. Its responsibilities for security under FAA Regulations, Part 107, were satisfied by a properly deputized contractual law enforcement officer. There was no control tower.
- An innovative project in 1975 installed a wind-driven generator to power obstruction lights on order. Previously, power had been provided by acetylene and later by storage batteries, all of which required continual maintenance. The wind-driven generator that powered the obstruction lights resulted in a substantial savings in operating costs.
- The system for activating runway lights from an approaching aircraft was installed.
- The airport was equipped with one 1,500 gallon crash fire rescue truck. A full-time crew was not provided since the level of service does not warrant the additional cost.
By 1976 there was a 24 percent drop in passengers at the airport. This was due to the completion of the new highway connecting the airport to the visitor destinations in the vicinity of Waimea Kohala Airport and the more frequent scheduling of flights into Keahole Airport. It was expected that the airlines providing scheduled flight service would petition the CAB for permission to terminate that service due to declining passenger loads. The state opposed the move. Air service had been reduced to 44,052 passengers in 1977, down from 72,864 served the previous year.
In 1978 the airport was designated as an eligible point to receive Essential Air Service under the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. On October 1, 1979 the Civil Aeronautics Board Order 79-10-3, the Bureau of Domestic Aviation, defined essential air service for Kamuela as a minimum of two daily round trip flights to Honolulu or Hilo and Kahului providing a total of at least 62 seats in each direction per day.
- Painting of the airport was completed in June 1981. All external and roofed areas were painted to enhance the terminal building.
- Parking improvements were made by designating overnight and long-term parking areas. This eliminated parking on grassed areas to allow for proper grounds maintenance.
A portion of the airport (40.682 acres) was originally obtained from the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL). A 1984 Tri-partite Land Exchange which completed the land transfer between the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), DHHL and DOT, included the airport’s DHHL lands. Therefore, as a result of the 1984 Land Exchange, the 40.682 acres were designated ceded lands and part of the Public Land Trust for ceded lands under Section 5 of the Admission Act. The ceded lands comprise about half of the runway and shoulders.
In May 1986, Princeville Airways (predecessor of Aloha Island Air now known as Island Air, Inc.) initiated regular scheduled service to Kamuela Airport.
An electrical short circuit caused a fire in the passenger terminal building in May 1986. Damage to the structure was estimated at $100,000 and was confined to the ticket counter area. Passenger service was moved to the baggage claim area and continued without interruption. Work to repair the structure was completed in 1988.
On April 17, 1993 Trans Executive Airlines Inc. (dba Trans Air) inaugurated subsidy free service from Kamuela to Honolulu, two daily round trips except for Tuesday and Wednesday with nine-seat Cessna 402 aircraft. On June 14, 1996, Trans Air was granted subsidized Essential Air Service status for Kamuela for two years using nine-seat Cessna 402 aircraft. They flew ten nonstop round trips each week between Kamuela and Honolulu at an annual subsidy of $292,061. On December 15, 1997 Trans Air voluntarily suspended EAS service, leaving the community without passenger service.
On January 14, 1998 the US DOT selected Air Nevada, Inc. (dba Pacific Wings) to replace Trans Air on an emergency basis to operate EAS to Kamuela. They later received a contract from US DOT to provide EAS through January 31, 2000.
The Waimea-Kohala Airport Master Plan and Noise Compatibility Program Report was published in February 1999. The plan was prepared by Edward K. Noda & Associates, Inc.
Phase I improvements (1999-2004) included: land acquisition for helicopter lease lots and transient apron; construction of fixed-wing aircraft parking apron, lease lots and taxi lane; construction of helicopter lease lots and FBO lease lot; partial removal of the berm and relocation of the airport fence, and construction of the parallel taxiway up to the end of the helicopter lease lots; construction of the transient apron; taxiway lighting; relocation of the fence on Runway 22 end; landscaping around and in the terminal building; marking overhead lines within proposed Runway Protection Zone, and upgrading the water supply system, including the fire protection water system. Cost of the Phase I improvements: $3.8 million.
Phase II improvements (2005-2009) included: acquiring land for the runway safety areas and runway protection zones, acquisition of the avigation easements; removal of the berm obstruction and grade the northwest side of the runway; renovation of the terminal building to accommodate the additional ticketing spaces and concession space; construction of a portion of the new access roadway; construction of the tenant parking lots; construction of the perimeter roadway; and miscellaneous utility improvements. Cost: $1.385 million.
Phase III improvements (2010-2020) included: construction of the remaining portion of the parallel taxiway to the airpark, if there is a commitment to develop an airpark; relocation of overhead lines along Mamalahoa Highway or placing lines underground; repave runway; install REILS and Lighted Distance-to-go markers; construction of runway safety areas beyond the runway ends and blast pads; acquire land and construct a new access roadway to the proposed Waimea Bypass Road; initiation of a GPS instrument approach). Cost: $2.8 million.
In October 1999, an Environmental Assessment was completed for the airport. On November 22, 1999, the Airport Layout Plan was approved by the FAA.
On August 9, 2000, the airport’s Noise Compatibility Program was approved by the FAA.
Pacific Wings expanded its EAS service connections between Waimea and Kahului on February 1, 2000, flying seven days a week instead of six. The new service ran Sundays from Maui to Waimea. On February 25, 2000 the U.S. DOT officially selected Pacific Wings to provide essential air service to Kamuela from May 1, 2000 to April 30, 2002. The EAS was extended for two more years on August 12, 2002 using Cessna Caravan aircraft. Service required six nonstop round trips each week to Honolulu and six to Kahului.
As of April 1, 2007 Pacific Wings declined to apply for an EAS subsidy and announced it would provide subsidy-free scheduled service to Waimea-Kohala. This arrangement allowed Pacific Wings to create its own price schedule as well as to cancel flights without regard to the EAS program and the impact it had on the public.
As of June 2010, the airline listed flights from Honolulu to Waimea-Kohala (Kamuela) but none could be booked. The site stated “Sorry there are no flights available” regardless of what date was sought. The HDOT is working to determine if scheduled passenger service should be discontinued at Waimea-Kohala, as passengers have access to Kona International Airport which is less than a 30-minute drive from Kamuela.