A look back at the history of Wanaka Airport

The first Wanaka Airshow - April 1988

Wanaka Sun column by Pam Dovey - Upper Clutha Historical Records Society

History of Wanaka Airport

Prior to the establishment of the Wanaka Airport near Luggate, aircraft used the grass airstrip at the foot of Mt. Iron on the south side.  This was technically part of Wanaka Station until the area was developed into a ten-acre block subdivision. Alastair McMillan built a hangar on the property and through the 1950s until it was closed in July 1983, it was used by fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, commercial and private.

It was increasingly obvious that the airport would never be satisfactory as a municipal airport. The current site of the airport had long been regarded as potentially suitable.  This site was mentioned in a town committee meeting in 1937.

Negotiations continued through the 1970s.  Lloyd Dunn was a driving force and kept pressure on the councils and Government.  Finally, in 1978, the price was negotiated with the owner, Norman Pittaway at $49,000 plus $8000 for fencing. Power, telephone, and sealing were to cost $120,000 and was financed with a loan and a government subsidy.

The airport opened in January 1983.  Aspiring Air Ltd built the first hangar in June 1982, and the council and Aspiring Air shared the cost of erecting the toilet block and the water storage tank. The airport was administered by Lake County Council but was situated in Vincent County Council.  This created administrative difficulties with problems of meeting operating costs.

In 1986 Lake County knew that if it wanted to retain the airport in public hands then it was imperative to develop the airport.  That year the runway was lengthened to 1200 metres and sown in grass seed. But the grass did not come away and the result had only limited use for about a year.  In 1987 a sealed runway was completed, 30 metres in width and 1200 metres long at a cost of $750,000. Finance was raised by interest-free loans, Wanaka businesses, and Air New Zealand.

Wanaka staged its first major air show in 1988. Organised by the New Zealand Warbirds Association, and Tim Wallis (later known as Sir Tim) of the Alpine Deer Group Ltd that had its headquarters at the airport.

The people of Wanaka, headed by Wanaka Lions and other community groups got behind the event and made it enjoyable for the 12,000 people the air show attracted. Proceeds from the day were split between the Warbirds hangar fund for vintage aircraft at Ardmore, Auckland, and the Wanaka Lions Club fund, for a covered swimming pool in the town.

In March 2004 Air NZ subsidiary Eagle Air launched a commercial service with daily Christchurch – Wanaka flights that ended in January 2013.  Timing, cost, and unreliability of flights were factors in its demise.

From small beginnings, over 200 people now work at the airport in a large variety of businesses. The airport is owned by Queenstown Lakes District Council and managed by Queenstown Air Corporation.

Source: Wanaka Story, Irvine Roxburgh.

RELATED:  More Wanaka Sun columns by the Upper Clutha Historical Records Society...

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Early Surveyors in the Upper Clutha Valley Posted: 10 Aug, 2017

A look back at Pembroke (Wanaka Township) Posted: 13 Jul, 2017 

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A River to Cross – Albert Town Posted: 12 Jun, 2017

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