ONE WAS THE CREATION of a visionary young Scotsman, the other a bold venture by Chinese businessmen. The resulting two companies nonetheless share a dubious distinction: neither should still exist. By traditional rules of business, both Hawaiian and Aloha Airlines should have disappeared years ago. Yet they fly on. Commuter airlines and would-be third carriers also navigated these skies. Their tales are told here as well, but the lion’s share of attention goes to the survivors.

Hawaiian Airlines began service as Inter-Island Airways on the eve of the Great Depression. It was still very much a pioneering age with no radio aids for guidance and a noticeable lack of landing strips. Service began with Sikorsky flying boats, both for operational reasons and to soothe the nerves of worried passengers. The company came under attack on December 7, 1941, then encountered a more lethal threat days later. In modern times the airline entered a financial nosedive of such intensity that disaster appeared imminent. Yet here are Boeing 767s with Hawaiian’s Pualani image on the tail, taxiing out to Honolulu’s Reef Runway. Inbound from Maui, a Hawaiian Boeing 717 banks above the blue Pearl Harbor Channel, setting up for landing on Runway 8 Left.

Then there was Aloha Airlines, taking wing in 1946 as Trans-Pacific Airlines or TPA. It was a time of renewed confidence for Americans as well as a time when war surplus air transports could be purchased at bargain prices. Founder Ruddy Tongg saw this airline as the tip of a movement, social as well as business. The company soon flew into turbulence, a judge’s order all but shutting them down. As with many airlines of the time, TPA ran out money. It had been a brave attempt in an industry where failure is the norm. Yet Aloha’s predecessor pressed on, damn the financial torpedoes. You can see their Boeing 737s with bird of paradise blue tails thundering skyward throughout the day.

By now you may suspect that these airlines are far more than business enterprises. Imagine a family linked by a passion and common purpose and you begin to get the idea. Now add a rivalry which is unmatched in the industry and the picture sharpens. Both carriers fought to gain advantage. When defeat of the opposition appeared unlikely, each airline proposed marriage on multiple occasions. Hawaii temporarily gained a third major carrier in an act of mutiny that nearly finished Hawaii’s pioneer airline. Ironically, steps to combat this upstart prepared Hawaiian Airlines to resist an equally severe threat from much larger competitors.

If you hear these airlines referred to in near-human terms it is for good reason. Each has acquired a unique personality, often reflecting the values of the founder or most influential owner/manager. In the case of Hawaiian Airlines, he was Stanley Kennedy. For Aloha, Dr. Hung Wo Ching most aptly filled those shoes.

Take a walk at Honolulu International Airport early one evening as the sun lies low above the Pacific, as trade winds transport golden cumulus off the Koolaus. This is the magic hour when ghosts of aviation’s past take flight. Noticeably absent are certain major carriers, particularly Pan American Airways, pioneer of ocean crossings. Nor will you find the tails of Western, TWA, Flying Tigers, and Braniff. Extinction lurks just around the corner in this business, and it is best to be wary.

If fortune smiles, you may catch sight of a rare bird on takeoff roll, a DC-4 or DC-6. Identify this creature by its straight wing, four big piston engines, a rather greasy plumage befitting a freight hauler, and a musical call of throaty engines turning slightly out-of-synch propellers. Watch as it lifts from Runway 4 Right, holds itself close to the ground during a slow acceleration, then lowers its wing to begin a turn more graceful than any seabird’s. Such propeller aircraft revolutionized trans-ocean air travel in the years following World War II, setting the stage for a tourism boom which would in turn transform the territory.

No doubt Honolulu’s South Ramp will offer at least one DC-3, a twin-engine, tail-dragging transport that first appeared in the islands during 1941. Worldwide, no other aircraft played a greater role in the growth of commercial aviation. How strange that the DC-3 might have remained unborn if not for one essential contribution from Hawaii’s first airline.

To feel the presence of amphibious airplanes operated long ago by Inter-Island Airways, proceed to the center concourse then glance out the first gate you come to facing Diamond Head. Roughly 30 yards ahead once stood the brand new hangar of Hawaii’s first airline. Two S-38 Sikorsky amphibious flying boats, polished to perfection, sat out front, facing one another. The year was 1929.

Continue tour

Copyright 2005 by Barnstormer Books