Story by Tom Stevens | Illustration by Guy Junker
A vague longing for fitness sometimes prods me out to the bike path that skirts the seaward end of Kahului Airport. Once there, I balance my bike against a post to watch aircraft arrive and depart.
I’m always impressed by the diversity of Maui’s air traffic. On the right day, I might see anything from a single-seat vintage Piper Cub to an immense Air Force transport doing touch-and-goes. And on any given day, dozens of tour helicopters, transoceanic passenger jets, interisland flights and cargo planes make OGG a very busy destination.
That wasn’t always so. Mauians and longtime visitors may recall sleepier versions of the airport. In fact, entire population subgroups could be identified by the Kahului terminals they remember.
For travelers of a certain vintage, mentioning the terminal “with the hole in the roof” triggers memories of waiting for luggage while sunlight streamed through the branches of an indoor tree alive with mynah birds. When Maui’s soaring passenger counts made that beloved terminal obsolete, an era ended.
In those days, air travelers boarded and disembarked by way of wheeled staircases that rolled up to the cabin doors. You walked across the tarmac to reach your plane. Hats flew off in the wind and bounced away like little tumbleweeds.
Travel back to the days before “direct flights,” and you reach the air-passenger cohort who all flew to Maui aboard homegrown carriers. These included many small commuter airlines that served remote Neighbor Island terminals in places like Kamuela, Kalaupapa and Kaunakakai. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Ka‘anapali even had a little airstrip beside the ocean where North Beach is now.
I can remember flying into Kahului aboard a DC-3 propeller plane when Maui’s main terminal was a tin-roofed building with parking for about a dozen Army surplus jeeps. That was in 1959, the only time I flew to Maui with my dad.
“I flew these for a while,” he told me as we buckled into our seats. “Great planes. You want pineapple juice?”
Back then, the stewardesses served canned pineapple juice in little paper cups, and issued squares of orange Chiclets gum to counteract depressurization as the plane reached cruising altitude.
My dad knew about depressurization. During the war, he had flown B-17 and B-29 bombers so high the crews breathed bottled oxygen and wore leather flight suits lined with sheepskin. The air was very thin, and cold enough to freeze Chiclets.
Before the war, my dad had been a skinny teenager and wannabe pilot in Topeka, Kansas. Whenever a barnstorming daredevil would land a biplane at Topeka’s airfield, my dad would race over to beg a ride in the open cockpit.
When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, my dad was too young to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps, so he took a train up to Canada, lied about his age, and got into the Royal Canadian Air Force flight school. Once he was old enough, he transferred to the Army Air Corps and started piloting bombers around the northern hemisphere.
That’s how he got to Hawai‘i the first time. He must have liked what he saw. In 1948, he and my mom booked a flight from San Francisco to Honolulu aboard a Pan Am Clipper, a pudgy four-engine plane equipped with sleeping berths.
The flight took thirteen hours, but I was two and don’t remember it. I was probably asleep, dreaming of landing on Maui one day.