Contractor Heritage NZ

Auckland International Airport: A work in progress

This article first appeared in Contractor‘s April issue.

Auckland International Airport is currently undergoing extensive development and has plans for future expansion. RICHARD SILCOCK looks back on its history and current and future development.

FLYING INTO AUCKLAND a few days after their historic flight across the Tasman in 1928, Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm landed in a grass paddock at Mangere.

This paddock with a short grass airstrip running alongside the shores of the Manukau Harbour was home to a few dairy cows and a small fledgling local aero club. A number of other trans-Tasman aviators followed Smith, including Jean Batten who completed her epic solo flight from England in 1936, landing at Mangere after first making landfall at New Plymouth.

Today it is the site of Auckland International Airport. Officially opened in January 1966 it is the largest and busiest airport in New Zealand, covering an area of some 1500 hectares. The main concrete runway extends nearly 3.7 kilometres and is capable of handling an all-up aircraft weight of 225 tons. A secondary runway/taxiway parallel to the main runway extends 3.1 kilometres.

In addition there are numerous taxiways and aircraft hardstand areas, an international terminal (originally built in 1977) and a domestic terminal (this was the original multi-purpose terminal) which was upgraded in 2013, a multi-storey car parking building, large aircraft hangars, aviation workshops, jet-engine testing bunkers, a 1.2 million litre aviation fuel storage depot, a 1.1 million litre water storage reservoir, and an extensive and expanding retail shopping park.

There are on average 162,000 aircraft movements each year with 30 airlines (another two international airlines will begin operating early this year) currently operating in and out. As at 31 December 2016 the airport handled 18 million passengers per annum. Auckland International Airport is listed on the New Zealand and Australian stock exchanges and has a capital value of around NZ$6.85 billion.

The airport was first mooted back in 1929 with both the Auckland City Council and the Auckland Chamber of Commerce seeking agreement with the government on a suitable location, financing and construction. Over the next 20 years debate continued over the best site, the cost to construct, the length of the runway and the sharing of the cost between 25 local territorial authorities and central government.

Following construction of the RNZAF base at Whenuapai at the beginning of WW2 and the subsequent use of this facility by civilian aircraft after the war ended, a decision on Mangere was further delayed. It was not until 1948/49, following a report by a British Civil Aviation consortium, which stated “Whenuapai cannot be made to comply with the new international air safety requirements”, that Mangere was again considered.

Levelling newly poured concrete for one of the new aircraft hardstand areas as it ‘cures’ using a long handled spreader.

Following extensive investigation and surveys by American airport consultants Leigh Fisher and Assocs, which found in favour of the Mangere site, the land was purchased by the government in 1959 and approval given for construction to begin. The Fisher Report in recommending the site said ease of road access from the city, favourable wind direction and excellent aircraft approach/take-off paths over either the harbour or surrounding farmland made it ideal. It also advocated a shorter runway parallel to the main one and provision for a cross-wind runway.

Funding was one of the biggest issues facing the airport committee and as reported in the Auckland Star: “they [the Auckland local authorities] nearly all want a new airport, but in typical Auckland fashion they want someone else to pay for it!”. As a result there was talk of a more modest airport with a shorter runway, however with the advent of jet aircraft, agreement was eventually reached for a runway of 2.59 kilometres. (It was extended to 3.7 kilometres in 1973.)

The Ministry of Works (MoW) was tasked with the design and construction. The first stage, involving the clearing of vegetation and topsoil, was commenced in late 1960. Excavations for the runway foundation involved moving tonnes of earth and to allow for the runway length some 64.7 hectares was reclaimed from the harbour utilising material from the excavations. At the height of construction some 170 bulldozers, scrapers, dump trucks and draglines worked the site from dawn until dusk.

Peat and pumaceous sand with extremely high clay/moisture content was an issue, however this was overcome by using drag lines to remove it. Problems were also encountered when it came to laying drains due to the high water table.

Despite extremely heavy rain in early 1962 delaying the earthworks, by May of the same year the earthworks for the runway and most of the taxiways had been completed and resembled a shallow one-metre deep canal system.

The second stage of the project was awarded to UK firm Taylor Woodrow in collaboration with Wilkins & Davies Construction of Auckland under contract to the MoW for the paving of the main runway, taxiways and aircraft hardstand areas.

The excavated runway areas were filled with base course 10.1 centimetres thick, 382,277 cubic metres of compacted scoria to a depth of up to 93 centimetres and a layer of stone chip before the concrete pavement was laid to a depth of 35.5 centimetres. The total paved surface for the runway involved 185,000 tonnes of concrete. Ducting for lighting and other utilities was placed in position as work progressed with over 193 kilometres of electrical wiring, 9.6 kilometres of service ducts and 80 kilometres of drains either embedded or under the concrete.

At the same time work commenced on the foundations and concrete floor for the TEAL (now Air New Zealand) aircraft hangar, workshops and maintenance facility. Piles for the 30.4 metre high control tower began in July and a month later a start was made on the foundations for the cargo building which doubled as the interim dual passenger terminal during the initial period of the airport’s operation.

Over 12 kilometres of roads, along with kerb and channelling within the airport perimeter and some 80.9 hectares of grassed areas utilising the topsoil from the runway excavations was also completed.

With the arrival of Air New Zealand’s first DC8 passenger jet in July 1965 and the transition from Whenuapai, commercial operations began at Mangere on November 24th of the same year.

At the official opening on 29 January, 1966, Prime Minister, Hon Keith Holyoake, said the airport was: “A milestone in the history of New Zealand aviation in general and for Auckland in particular as it signified Auckland’s growing importance as a commercial centre and as a gateway to New Zealand.”

Since the opening, the stand-alone international terminal has been constructed and the runway extended. There have also been various upgrades to both the domestic and international terminals (the latter in 2005) to cater for the increase in the number of airlines, size of aircraft etc, the creation of more parking areas, and the development of the retail area in the northern precinct.

Currently, extensive work is being carried out on the extension of some existing taxiways, the construction of a new taxiway and the addition of new hardstand areas to the west of the international terminal to accommodate the A380 aircraft now operating into the airport. This work, which is being carried out by Brian Perry Civil (BPC is a trading brand of Fletcher Construction), also includes the installation of underground fuel pipes and is expected to be completed soon.

“Twenty-two thousand cubic metres of concrete has been used for the taxiways and hardstands which are equivalent to six ruby fields in size,” says Matt Findlay, project manager for BPC. “We are utilising our own onsite concrete batching plant to maintain supply and doing a lot of the work at night to minimise disruption.”

A huge Bidwell concrete paving machine, which straddles the width of the taxiway, is being utilised to lay 500 to 550 cubic metres of concrete per day. Additional access ramps are also being installed to cater for the A380 aircraft.

Many aviation experts and pilots rate the airport as one of the best in the world. The flight approaches over the harbour or open country are seen as almost ideal, with the main runway aligned to the prevailing south-westerly or nor-westerly wind. The airport is equipped with the latest navigation and landing aids, including a twin locator approach guidance system, instrument landing systems (ILS), and very high frequency omni-directional radio and radar.

Plans are in place to extend the airport further over a 30-year time-frame with an additional runway (2150 metres) capable of handling smaller aircraft.

General manager for airport development, Graham Matthews, says it is predicted the airport will become a global hub by 2044 with a throughput of some 40 million passengers per annum.

“Over the next five years we will spend in the region of $1 million per day in development,” he says. “This will include a $180 million expansion and makeover of the international terminal, further expansion of the aircraft hardstand areas, and construction of a new five-star hotel. Work will also start on the construction of a new domestic terminal that will form part of a single, integrated terminal building.”

It is also understood consideration is being given for a future rail or light rail link to the city by Auckland City.

The development and infrastructure that now comprises Auckland International Airport has come a long way since those daring aviators of the 1920s and 30s landed on a grass strip in a paddock alongside the Manukau Harbour. It is fitting that Jean Batten’s small single-seat aircraft is proudly displayed in the departure lounge of the international terminal.

It’s never been easy finding a car park at the airport. Aircraft at the air pageant that celebrated the official opening of the airport in January 1966. Photo courtesy of Auckland International Airport.
  • See next month’s follow up story in Contractor’s May issue on historical classic machines and the Auckland Airport runway build.                           

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