For 25 years from 1961 to 1986 the Ka’anapali Airport operated with an airport that started just 30 feet off of the Ka’anapali Beach that has affectionately become known today as “Airport Beach.”
It began on an old coastal road that cut through a sugar cane field. In 1961 plans for the development of a resort area by Amfac Inc. dictated the need for a landing strip that could bring in workers as well as equipment and materials.
Designated as Runway 01-19 it soon came into use by the fledgling commuter air service begun by John Peacock and W.K. Woods called the Royal Hawaiian Air Service aka RHAS. Initially, this legendary airline launched in 1962. The runway’s length being only 2615 feet limited the usage to the fleet of single prop Cessna 402 aircraft, but in its heyday, the airport averaged 60 flights a day in and out of Kaanapali.
At the end of the runway was a two story terminal constructed of plywood. The control tower was located on the first floor and a spiral staircase many considered to lead to heaven, led instead to the High School Harry’s Windsock lounge. There the bartender “High School Harry” would treat passengers to his world famous Bloody Marys.
The walls and ceilings of the Windsock were covered from top to bottom with business cards from all over the world, and it was believed that if the walls ever collapsed the lounge would be held together by these calling cards that were stapled, glued and some held in place by bubble gum.
To their credit, the Royal Hawaiian Air Service transported over 2,000,000 island visitors during its lifetime without registering a single incident on its’ watch. Something no other airline can boast.
The daredevil commuter pilots who flew the Cessna for RHAS regarded this airfield their favorite because of its challenges being in the middle of a wind shadow. A “wind shadow” is a phenomenon occurring when the wind air flow encounters an obstacle. The obstacle in question was the West Maui Mountains that shielded the beach from the trade winds. After impact, the wind flow is perturbed over a certain distance creating depression zones. It was not uncommon for the windsocks located at either end of the runway to each be turned inward pointing to the center of the field .towards each other.
During takeoffs and landings when there were no passengers, the pilots routinely practiced STOL’s an acronym for Short Takeoff & Landings in which with a full throttle, a good headwind and full flaps they would land and take off using only 50 feet of runway… OMG. Little wonder Kaanapali Airport along with High School Harry’s Bloody Marys was a favorite for these adrenaline junkies.
But more than just great flying these pilots offered unbelievable service because Royal Hawaiian was known for its entertainment factor as well. The pilots not only guided their crafts safely but gave in flight tours along the way. Aviators were expected to fly low and describe the scenery for passengers. Flight routes were never predetermined, and routes over waterfalls, volcanoes, and whales came standard with the fare. It was said that one pilot even got chewed out for taking a straight, high-altitude flight without narration. Pilots became friends with the likes of Carol Burnett, Charles Lindbergh, and other repeat customers. The company’s sight-seeing vacations attracted worldwide recognition and by 1974 bookings reach 128,546.
The Ka’anapali Airport finally closed its doors on January 25, 1986, to make room for the construction of the Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Resort. However, the actual building did not begin for another 17 years after this date in 2003. Today, the pavilion at Kaheliki park is all that remains of the once bustling little terminal where the A-frame Windsock Lounge sat upon its plywood haunches. However, there you will find a plaque dedicated to those glory days when Airport Beach was indeed Runway 01-19.
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