How many runways do you need to build to be crowned ‘the king of airports’? MARY SEARLE BELL talks to Arnold Bayliss about his career with Downer, and all those airports.
ARNOLD BAYLISS first joined Downer & Co back in 1950 as a 19-year-old. His job had him driving motor scrapers and bulldozers, stripping overburden at Black Diamond and Ohai opencast coal mines in Southland, and he was soon promoted to the role of shift supervisor.
He spent eight years there and, when the contract finished, he took a similar job with the Ministry of Works, stripping overburden with a Link-Belt Speeder cable shovel. However, after a few short months, Downer asked him to re-join the firm, this time as foreman for its Star Mine contract in Southland.
Arnold had married Gladys, a miner’s daughter, and they had two young daughters. The family built a house in Nightcaps – “the last one to be built there”, says Arnold.
In late 1960 Downer asked him to go to Momona to work as the construction foreman on the Dunedin Airport contract.
Arnold says it was a big job – building the airport from scratch – and it was quite a hard job. His team of about 10 operators was responsible for constructing the subgrade for the runway and getting the bitumen put on.
“That’s when I really started to learn a few things,” he says.
His boss was Alex Swainson, and Arnold credits him with changing his life.
“When I arrived, he picked me up from the airport and he was talking about basecourse. I said, ‘what’s that?’, and he said, ‘you’ve got a lot to learn, matey’.
“He taught me all the things I should have known about quarrying – draglines in the river, face shovels in the quarry, producing road metal for the runway.”
With the Dunedin Airport complete in 1962, Arnold was asked to go to Whakatane to build an airport there. So, the family packed up and moved north to a rented house in Ohope Beach.
The project was small and straightforward, however, the rock came from a quarry owned by a local, who was “just hopeless”, says Arnold, “so I took over”.
With Whakatane Airport completed on schedule, Arnold moved on again, this time to Napier, and his third airport.
Hawke’s Bay Airport is sited on the former Ahuriri Lagoon, an area which was raised above sea level during the 1931 Napier earthquake. As such, the land required a lot of treatment before it was suitable to hold a runway.
“We mixed two percent cement into the premetal to give it strength,” says Arnold.
Downer shipped its plant up from Dunedin for the job, “and about three days later guys from there showed up looking for jobs – it was great”.
With the old team reunited, they started work on the runway. However, things weren’t easy.
“We had to construct lots of concrete slot drains. There were lots of big holes full of mud – the diggers were in it half way up their cabs.
“We did most of the work in a very short time as the weather was marvellous. Then the Tangora floods happened and all the slot drains we had built got blocked. We had to clean everything out. We’d send a dog down with a bucket on his back, then his owner would call him out.”
Mud and mutts aside, Arnold says it was a really good contract, and he particularly enjoyed having his team of loyal men back.
While he was supervising the Hawke’s Bay Airport construction, another contractor was building an airport in Wairoa but went broke before the job was finished. Downer, and Arnold, stepped in to complete the job.
At the same time, Arnold was appointed contract manager for the Gisborne-Wairoa road, basing the family in Gisborne for two years while the projects were completed.
The year 1965 brought another move and another airport. New Plymouth this time.
“Then the MD came and saw me and said, ‘I think it’s time you came into head office’.”
For six years from 1966, Arnold was Downer’s plant, earthworks and mining manager, based in Wellington. But 1973 saw a move to Auckland, where he took the position of earthworks, roading and mining, and general civil engineering manager. Once again, there was a runway to build – the Auckland International Airport extension.
In 1980, Downer won its first international contract – a joint venture with Fletchers to build an airport, roads and a power station on Palau, east of the Philippines. Arnold was appointed project manager for the $21 million job.
“A lot of things turned against us there, but we got through it – we made some money, I think,” says Arnold.
“We had to ship our gear from New Zealand but the wharfies were striking – the ship had only half the gear on it when it arrived so we had to hire a second one [ship].
“There was also a fuel shortage. We bought a shipload of fuel and got Fitzroy Engineering to build us a tank in the Mobil complex, to ensure we had fuel for the whole contract.”
When he returned to this country in 1983, Arnold was appointed northern regional manager, “looking after everything north of Tirau”.
The company was bought by Brierley Investments in 1988, which promptly began stripping its assets.
“In 1989, I decided I didn’t want to carry on. The Brierley influence was coming on and they wouldn’t agree to any plant replacements.”
However, before he could retire, the role of general manager in Papua New Guinea was offered to him. So once again, Arnold and his wife packed their bags, and set off overseas for another couple of years.
He finally left the company in 1991, although continued to consult for Downer for the next few years.
Of the many different projects and airports he tackled in his 40-plus years with Downer, Arnold says the Palau job was his favourite.
“Palau gave the most interest because of the difficulties we had to overcome getting the gear there, and having to build the fuel tank and so on.”
And what does he think of his moniker as “the king of airports”?
“I don’t know about that,” he says with a shrug.
“I guess, once you’ve built one runway…”
• Photos and information from the files of author and historian R Campbell.