Looking back on an on-going project

As work progresses on extending the (current) New Plymouth Airport and building a new terminal, Neil Ritchie looks back on its chequered, 55-year-old history.

Local company Clelands Construction is the main contractor for the construction of the new terminal building that will almost treble the size of the current terminal at New Plymouth Airport. Work started last month and is due to be completed by early 2020.

Enabling works began last December and included all new underground services and the excavation and backfilling for the building foundation area for the new terminal. This work was let as a single contract to local firm Offshore Plumbing Services (OPS).

The scope of the enabling works consisted of: Site clearance; partial demolition of the existing terminal; construction of a temporary ‘airside’ security fence for the main building site; relocating existing and constructing new underground services; roading, footpath and car park modifications; bulk excavation of the area under the proposed new terminal building and placing of hardfill in the excavated area.

Clelands managing director Michael Braggins says that as the enabling works for the larger terminal were already completed his company was handed “a clean slate to build up from”.

And, having already established the site facilities, such as containers, offices, et cetera, Clelands has not encountered any problems. “Not at this stage, [but] all construction projects have their own unique challenges,” he adds.

“We have [already] carried out significant planning to mitigate site specific risks, such as Foreign Object Debris (FOD) which could cause damage to aircraft … so safety is a big focus given the proximity of this building (the existing terminal) to the operational airport.”

He adds that, in reference to the current downturn in oil and gas and some other industries in the region, the timing of the project, “provides a level of optimism for local subcontractors and suppliers.”

The first hangar of the original New Plymouth Airport was reputedly built in a day in 1929 in the middle of a grassy area. Photo supplied by The New Plymouth District Council’s Library.

Looking back

The original airport took several years to construct – starting in 1929 and concluding with the official opening in 1933. It had five runways, the longest of which stretched for about 1500 metres.

At the time of opening the region had a purely farming focus, but with time has since diversified to cater for the energy industry and tourism, as well as dairying. It is now the fourth busiest regional airport in the country, catering for more people than other cities with larger populations, such as Hamilton and Tauranga.

During World War II, the airport became the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) Bell Block Airbase. Post war, the airport returned to civilian use, and was used by National Airways Corporation (NAC), with links to Whenuapai (Auckland) and Paraparaumu (north of Wellington).

The airport’s future was evaluated during the 1950s and 1960s, as was the whole of New Zealand’s infrastructure. The resultant reviews applicable to Taranaki saw several improvements to the airport’s operation.

First, NAC acquired several Fokker F27 Friendship aeroplanes. Second, in view of the then undulating grass landing strips, the need for a tarmac runway and clearer approach paths, it became obvious an entirely new airport was needed; construction followed soon after. During construction, a small hill at the west end of the runway had to be levelled off at the end of Brown Road (now renamed Airport Drive) in Bell Block (now part of greater New Plymouth).

This (new) airport opened in 1966, three kilometres north-east of the original, which is now industrial land. The foundation stone from the original airport and a stone commemorating RNZAF Bell Block, were moved to the new airport when it opened.

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