Christchurch International Airport – an ongoing story

Since its inception in 1936, Christchurch International Airport has been an unfinished project in terms of ongoing development. Richard Silcock traces the history and recent expansion of this piece of regional infrastructure – our second busiest airport.

DURING THE EARLY to mid-1930s, with the increasing interest in aviation by the public, government and many local authorities some 30 grass surface landing ground sites around the country were approved by government for development and the Public Works Department (PWD) – the forerunner of the Ministry of Works – was requested to undertake the planning and physical work for their construction.

Fulton Hogan works on resurfacing one of the runways. Maintenance and resurfacing of runways is done at night to avoid disruption to air services. (Photo: CIAL)

Christchurch City Council (CCC) recognised the benefits of establishing an aerodrome near the city to provide for the rapidly growing number of small airlines that were operating both a mail and a restricted passenger service around the country.

Following consideration of two possible sites (the other being New Brighton), Harewood was chosen as the best location for an aerodrome due to the “stony robust ground”. In 1936, 227 hectares of land was purchased by the council for £3000 despite, according to a Christchurch Press report, some local residents voicing their concerns over the potential for noise from “planes zooming overhead”.

The 915-metre grass strip, designed and constructed by PWD along with a basic small wooden terminal building was used by commercial operators flying routes to the West Coast and around the South Island.

At the official opening (the airport was not officially opened until May 1940), it was stated the earthworks and the levelling of ground had cost two shillings and six pence per yard and a total cost of £20,000.

The Press reported: “Harewood is now a key aerodrome for New Zealand … it has allowed Christchurch to be well connected to the rest of the country.”

With the advent of WW2 the aerodrome was largely taken over and used by the RNZAF as a training base and a number of camouflaged additional buildings including hangars, control tower and accommodation barracks were built.

Following the end of the war and the closure of the air force base a further 260 hectares of land was purchased and in addition to the grass runway, two stabilised metalled, cross-directional runways along with parallel taxiways were constructed in late 1949/early 50s by the Ministry of Works (MoW). Most of the earthworks were done using MoW designed earth-scrapers hauled by dozers with the excavation varying in depth to a maximum of 900mm. Pitrun filling was laid in layers and compacted by rollers with five-percent Halswell loess being added to the top layer. British Pavements laid the topcourse and chip sealing. The main runway was 2012 metres in length and the other 1737 metres to enable larger aircraft such as DC6s to land.

By the early 1950s it became the first designated ‘international airport’ in New Zealand with flights to Australia. A wooden hangar was converted into a terminal for passenger processing and lighting installed along the runways.

In 1956 the airport was renamed Christchurch International Airport with all reference to Harewood Aerodrome discontinued.

The 1950s also saw the airport gain international exposure as the host for the ‘Great London to Christchurch Air Race’ which was won by an RAF Canberra jet in just-under 24 hours, and as the base for the United States Antarctic Operations.

With the increase in passengers a 6000 square metre ‘permanent’ terminal was constructed in 1957-60 by Fletcher Construction. The main runway was further extended in 1963 to 2442 metres and the apron enlarged by Isaac Construction to allow for commercial turbo-prop and jet aircraft to operate, with Qantas being the first airline to operate a 707 jet service to Sydney in 1965.

The runway extension had a 630mm pitrun sub-base and a chip-seal pavement depth of 930mm. Several years later the entire runway was resealed with hot-mix asphalt by British Pavements.

A dedicated international arrivals and departures hall was added to the terminal in 1966 and NAC (the government-owned domestic airline which later merged with Air New Zealand) began the first Boeing 737 flights out of the airport in 1968.

The main runway and taxiway was completely re-strengthened and resealed in 1973 by Fulton Hogan and British Pavements to allow for ‘heavy’ Boeing 747 ‘jumbo jet’ and DC10 aircraft.

Further extensions to the terminal were completed in 1975 and in 1979 Air New Zealand constructed a large hangar and engine testing complex for servicing its fleet. By 1980 five international airlines were operating into and out of the airport.

The main runway was again further extended in 1984, providing a total length of 3288 metres which allowed airlines to operate direct B747 services to Los Angeles via Hawaii, Singapore, Bangkok and on to London.

The contract for the earthworks included the filling in of a large rubbish dump with river gravel, realigning and reconstructing Harewood Road to allow for the extension and creating a runway pavement depth of 950mm. Isaac Construction was awarded the contract which included asphaltic surfacing of the extension.

Additional airlines started using Christchurch Airport in 1987-88, resulting in further extensions to the terminal and the introduction of air bridges. In April 1989 a supersonic Concorde passenger jet made a scheduled stop-over as part of a world tour.

A completely new international terminal was built in 1998 creating an additional 28,000 square metres of floor space and was again expanded in 2004 along with additional aircraft hard stands and air bridges to accommodate A340 aircraft and more recently A380s.

With Jetstar commencing services in 2005 a further expansion began in early 2006 with the construction of a multi-storey car park, a new 45-metre high cone-shaped control tower and a new $20 million regional passenger lounge.

A massive project commenced in 2009 on replacing the old domestic terminal, expanding the international terminal and integrating both into a single building with state-of-the-art technology and many more service facilities. The whole project was managed by Coffey’s and the building constructed by Hawkins and Mainzeal.

In addition, a new taxiway was incorporated into the aircraft parking apron to allow for more efficient movement of aircraft.

Isaac Construction was again involved in the aircraft apron. Works included 80,000 square metres of new and resurfaced pavement, installing a new stormwater drainage system and the fabrication and construction of a 300-metre steel-framed covered pedestrian walkway, along with lighting and communication cabling.

This redevelopment took three and a half years to complete at a cost of $237 million. It was officially opened in April 2013 and has subsequently won a number of industry awards.

Since 2002 Fulton Hogan has been involved with tarmac maintenance and resurfacing and in some areas has been applying the pavement sealer Gilsonite (hydrocarbon bitumen) which has proven to be effective against harsh weather conditions such as extreme temperatures, rain and snow and has the potential to extend pavement life by up to 15 years.

Further extension of the two runways is in the planning stage, with the potential for the main runway to be extended to 3600 metres and the other extended onto land presently occupied by the Harewood Golf Course (CIAL has already purchased this land) making it up to 2000 metres long to allow for ‘long-haul’ flights to operate fully loaded in norwesterly wind conditions.

Passenger throughput at the airport has now reached 6.57 million per annum while aircraft movements totalled just under 95,000 last year. The new integrated terminal is 77,591 square metres, while the total land area of the airport now covers almost 1000 hectares – a massive increase since the original 227 hectares purchased by the council in 1936. Over 6000 people work on the airport campus and 13 scheduled airlines regularly fly into and out of the airport, with the heaviest aircraft being the Airbus A380s (at 575 tonnes maximum take-off weight [MTOW]).

The airport terminal was relatively unscathed by the earthquakes of 2010/11 with no damaged incurred to the runways, which can be attributed to the foresight of originally choosing the Harewood site for its comparatively solid ground.

The airport is owned by CCC (75 percent) and the NZ government (25 percent) and is managed and operated by Christchurch International Airport Ltd (CIAL).

Further expansion of the airport is planned to take place by 2040.

  • Credit: The writer acknowledges the assistance of CIAL, Archives NZ and the Christchurch Press in providing material for this article.
This article first appeared in Contractor December 2017.

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