Backward Glance – From Maroochydore Aerodrome to Sunshine Coast Airport

Image: “Maroochydore’s first aeroplane”, Maroochydore Beach, 1 February 1922. Pictured include: Pioneer aviators Captain Snell and Lieutenant Bird. Pin Cushion Island in the background. The pilot landed ‘to see what place it was’. Joy flights conducted by these two WWI veterans began on Maroochydore Beach in December 1922

With the first plane set to land on the new Sunshine Coast Airport Runway 13/31 on Sunday June 14, 2020, it seems only fitting that we take a moment to reflect on how far we have come.

The first aircraft to land at Maroochydore, on February 1, 1922, was an Avro 504K, rego G-AUDA, owned by the Aero flight Aviation Company, Bulimba.

It was the dire need for cigarettes, and navigating with what they thought was an accurate map which showed no township, that they decided to land on the beach and investigate.

Capt P.W. Snell and Lieut S.W. Bird were delighted to discover the town of Maroochydore.

They lamented that aviation in Queensland was hampered by the lack of available maps and stated New South Wales’ maps would not miss a township of such importance as Maroochydore.

Messrs J.T. Lowe and F. Goeths were taken up on a flight over the area and out to sea much to their enjoyment.

Great excitement was in the air during the Christmas holidays of 1926 when an aeroplane from the Eagle Aviation Company came to Maroochydore, offering flights at a moderate price.

On December 24, 1926 The Nambour Chronicle reported that if the bright weather continued, the thrill of flying through the air would prove most invigorating and there would be an opportunity to organise an inaugural series of flights, which would run daily.

The article continued “Mr T. O’Connor whom we understand is responsible for the inauguration of this pleasure, is worthy of congratulation in this endeavour to provide novel enjoyment.”

The flights were 15 minutes going south to Caloundra and then north to Coolum. Those who “flew aloft” were delighted.

A photo of a damaged plane on the beach was thought to be the same aircraft, however John Stitt in his booklet “Maroochydore Aerodrome, Aerodrome Road” offers another scenario.

Mr Leslie Kewell who won distinction as a “Ferry Pilot” during the Great War was flying in an antiquated De Havilland, which he had commented was like flying a brick, when a large sheet of three-ply was torn off by the wind from near the nose of the aircraft. It sped past the mechanic’s head towards Mr Kewell who caught it in mid-air. Nonplussed he handed it to the mechanic and landed, so repairs could be made.

Continuing the journey, another forced landing occurred 40 miles out from Brisbane and the plane had to be abandoned on Maroochydore Beach.

In 1928 a site was selected for an aerodrome on the plain near Maroochydore Beach. The land was cleared and a landing strip marked out.

In 1930, The Nambour Chronicle reported that a commodious and suitable site at Maroochydore was expected to be set aside and work prioritised to bring it up to requirements laid down for registration by the Civil Aviation department.

Image: Air pageant at Maroochy Airport, Sunday 28 April 1974.

In December 1930, a monster aerial pageant was advertised in The Nambour Chronicle. Attractions were aerial bombing, parachute jumping by the celebrated Captain Erho and an open pilot’s race.

 

It is not known when the last aeroplane landed at the aerodrome. However, a Nambour Chronicle article in November 1937 advised that after an inspection of the Maroochydore Aerodrome it would cost 2,000 pounds to improve the runway for modern aircraft. And so, the search for a new airport site began.

In 1954, a site for a future airport was proposed by the Near North Coast and Mary Valley Council Progress Associations.

Mr David Low MLA contacted Roy Kassulke, who was a bold, young pilot, and asked what would be the best way to get an airport to which Mr Kassulke advised “seek interest in the formation of an aero club.”

On May 29, 1959 a meeting was held in Nambour with 120 people in attendance – the Maroochy Aero Club was founded.

Prior to this in 1958, Fred Murray had surveyed the site which was no easy task. In his memoirs he explained that there was no bridge over the Maroochy River at Bli Bli so he and his offsiders had to row across to where they were to be met by Stewey Cook and his Massey Ferguson tractor and trailer. The track wound through sugar cane fields, dense tea-tree scrub and equally dense swarms of mosquitoes and sand flies.

A runway 2000 feet long was constructed by Pacific Paradise Development Company and was paid for by a 25 per cent Federal Government subsidy, 50 per cent State Government subsidy and 25 per cent from Maroochy Shire Council. The Courier Mail at the time reported the development cost 3,000 pounds.

The runway had a false start when upon completion David Low contacted Roy Kassulke and asked him to come and test the runway. He and a couple of his fellow pilots, Lindsay Mullen and Bill Edgar flew up to test the strip and found it was too soft and boggy for a safe landing. When consulted again, Roy Kassulke asked if a car could be driven up and down the strip without issues and was told it could.

As a result on Friday August 14 1959, Roy Kassulke was the very first pilot to land an aircraft on the newly constructed airstrip. The aircraft was a HT-2 Hindustani Trainer on loan from the Indian government. A day later, the bridge over the Maroochy River was opened providing access to the aerodrome from Maroochydore.

On August 12, 1961 Senator Shane Paltridge, Federal Minister for Civil Aviation, officially opened the Maroochy Airport in front of a huge crowd. Many critics slated it as a white elephant and David Low’s big mistake but it was not long before the wisdom of his foresight was realised.

Image: Nambour and Maroochy District Band at the official opening of Maroochy Airport on 12 August 1961.

 

The first hangar was built and in 1965 the first flying school, Sunland Aviation began lessons. The formation of the very popular Maroochy Aero Club together with the flying school laid the foundations for what was to become a bustling airport.

Over the years, the airport has had its fair share of celebrity visits, most notably Princess Diana and Prince Charles in 1983 when they flew in at the start of their visit to the Sunshine Coast.

The Sunshine Coast hosted the 2002 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) creating a huge day for the airport. Visiting dignitaries and VIPs came from all over including Her Majesty the Queen, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair and Australia’s Prime Minister, John Howard.

When the time is right following the impacts of COVID-19 restrictions, the airport will welcome increased flights from across Australia, Asia and the Western Pacific enhancing the Sunshine Coast’s national and global connections.

It has been a long journey from Captain Snell’s and Lieutenant Bird’s landing on a sandy stretch of beach to what is now a state of the art international airstrip.

Thanks to the Sunshine Coast Council Heritage Library staff for the words and Picture Sunshine Coast for the images.

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