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Pilots return to dedicate Kaanapali Airport monument

By Staff | Jul 1, 2010

Created by a hui of retired Royal Hawaiian Air Service pilots and staff members — including pilot Robert Morrison (above) — the plaque tells the story of West Maui's former beach-side airport.

KAANAPALI — A new monument at Kahekili Beach Park tells the story of Kaanapali Airport and the legendary Royal Hawaiian Air Service (RHAS).

Former pilots, RHAS employees and passengers gathered at the park last week Monday afternoon to dedicate the monument and reminisce about the oceanfront airport that closed in 1986.

Kaanapali Airport was built on an old coastal road in 1961 to transport workers and materials into West Maui’s new resort developed by Amfac Inc.

Surrounded by sugar cane, Runway 01-19 started just 30 feet from the shoreline and extended north 2,615 feet.

“Fresh tradewinds often challenged flight operations. It was exciting to arrive and depart at this short airstrip,” the monument’s plaque notes.

Runway 01-19 was located steps away from the ocean. “The runway was short, and it was an adventure to fly to and from Kaanapali Airport,” noted pilot Robert Morrison.

“Safety concerns eventually restricted access to only one operator: Royal Hawaiian Air Service (RHAS).”

Located where the Kahekili Beach Park pavilion sits today, the small, A-frame terminal building had an upstairs bar — High School Harry’s Windsock Lounge — accessed by a spiral staircase and famous for its Bloody Mary drinks.

Founded by John Peacock and W.K. Woods and based in Honolulu, RHAS used Kaanapali Airport as a Maui hub for flights to most of Hawaii’s airports with a fleet of 15 eight-seat, twin-engine Cessnas.

Pilot Robert Morrison, who spearheaded the effort to establish the monument, said the RHAS credo was “Go anywhere a bird can fly” out of Kaanapali, including Honolulu (14 flights daily), Kona, Hilo, Kamuela, Upolo Point, Hana, Kahului, Lanai, and Kaunakakai and Kalaupapa on Molokai

“It was just wonderful, fun, friendly, efficient, excellent air service,” said Morrison.

Open from 1961-86, Kaanapali Airport was serviced by Royal Hawaiian Air Service.

Before a flight, the pilot would walk into the terminal and call out the passengers by name.

Pilot Mike Hudgins said aviators were expected to fly low and describe the scenery for passengers.

“En route views of Hawaii’s hidden wonders (including waterfalls, volcanoes and whales) came standard with the fare, adding value and adventure to inter-island travel,” the monument states.

On the way to Honolulu, for example, RHAS pilots would pass over Kalaupapa or along the stunning north shore of Molokai, which would be full of waterfalls after a rainstorm.

“Passengers were very happy to be there,” said Hudgins, and pilots became friends with Carol Burnett, Charles Lindbergh and other repeat customers.

Hudgins laughed when he recalled that one pilot got chewed out for taking a straight, high-altitude flight without narration.

With the small planes, low approach to Kaanapali and strong winds, “some tourists were scared to death,” he added.

Pilot Fred Farrell said RHAS “was a great job for an extrovert in a show and tell airline.”

Pilot Jack DeTour said fliers could take any route they wanted, as long as they made it in time for their next scheduled flight.

“People got to see Hawaii,” said DeTour.

A passenger could take a dog on a flight if the rest of the group agreed and the dog didn’t have fleas.

Joe Pluta, who helped establish the monument through the Kaanapali North Beach Master Association, flew on RHAS two to three times a week for years while working with resorts.

Without the security fears or checkpoints of today, Pluta could show up five minutes before a flight. He even called to hold up flights until he arrived a few times.

“We had a wonderful time. It was the best airline,” Pluta commented.

Maui resident Deb Michalek, who worked at the terminal, said employees would have water balloon or wet paper towel fights in the hour or two before the last flight of the day.

“It was so much fun,” she said.

“This company had a knack for hiring nice people,” Hudgins said. “It was the best job you could ever have.”

The plaque states that RHAS “became Hawaii’s leading commuter airline, and achieved an unblemished safety record during its 21-year span.”

With 36 scheduled flights out of Kaanapali alone, former company President Robert Haws is proud that Royal Hawaiian transported 2,200,000 people without an injury.

The airplanes were in excellent condition, and the company originally hired high-ranking, retired military pilots, Morrison said.

Royal Hawaiian Air Service treated its pilots well with nine paid holidays (plus their birthdays), a Christmas bonus of 1 percent of their salary, turkeys on Thanksgiving and other perks.

Through a trade agreement, pilots could stay at The Sheraton Maui for free, play golf in Kaanapali for no charge and rent a Budget Rent A Car vehicle for $10, so they vacationed on Maui frequently.

Despite its success, Kaanapali Airport came to an abrupt end on Jan. 25, 1986.

Amfac wanted to expand Kaanapali Resort and negotiated with Maui Land & Pineapple Co. Inc. to move the airport to Mahinahina.

Hawaiian Airlines signed on at the new Kapalua-West Maui Airport, and Royal Hawaiian Air Service was finished on the West Side.

Arsene “Blackie” Gadarian lifted the Windsock Lounge to create Blackie’s Bar on Kupunakea Street in Lahaina. The colorful jazz haunt closed in 1995.

Looking back, Pluta said Kaanapali Airport could have operated a minimum of two more years.

And, as the monument states, 17 years passed before The Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas and Honua Kai Resort and Spa opened.