How Aviation Forever Changed the Hawaiian Islands

Jul 3, 2015

Credit Hawaii State Archives

This morning Hawai‘i welcomed the Solar Impulse 2, a sun-powered plane attempting to fly around the world without using a drop of fuel.  The plane landed at sunrise at Honolulu’s Kalaeloa Airport. The record-breaking journey is just the latest memorable flight in a state with a rich aviation history. HPR’s Molly Solomon takes a look back at the story of air travel in the islands.

“Hawai‘i is about as far away as you can get from anywhere,” said Burl Burlingame, a historian at the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor. He said if you’re interested in Hawai‘i Aviation 101, look no further than the state’s busiest airport.

The PN-9 seaplane John Rodgers flew from San Francisco to Hawaii in 1925, the first trans-pacific flight.
Credit Hawaii State Archives

More than 20 million visitors pass through the John Rodgers terminal at Honolulu International Airport every year. But few likely know the story behind its name. Rodgers was the first to attempt flying across the vast ocean that separates San Francisco from Hawai‘i. "When John Rodgers, the Navy Commander at Pearl Harbor, took off with a flight of three seaplanes from San Francisco, two of them turned back," said Burlingame, recalling the 1925 flight. "The third plane, called the PN-9, was on its way here and then it disappeared."

Many feared the pilots on the PN-9 seaplane, including John Rodgers, had perished. What actually happened was the plane had run out of fuel about 400 miles from O‘ahu. The Navy aviators were able to land on water, and waited for rescue crews to find them. Burlingame says when none came, the crew fashioned a Plan B. "They pulled the fabric off the lower wings and tied it to the plane," said Burlingame. "They actually sailed the rest of the way."

Credit Hawaii State Archives

While not the successful flight Rodgers had anticipated, his attempt earned him a place in Hawai’i’s aviation history, alongside names like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. "It's been a goal for any aircraft of the 1920s and 30s," said Bob van der Linden, the curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. "If you can fly to Hawaii, you can fly anywhere." Last year, van der Linden helped create an exhibit at the Smithsonian called "Hawai‘i By Air.” He explains how the idea of flying across the Pacific was not only enticing for many pilots, it was also dangerous. "You're trying to find a very small area and you're flying thousands of miles," said van der Linden. "There's no radio, the compasses and the engines aren't that reliable -- it doesn't take much for something bad to happen."

Many pilots lost their lives in early attempts to reach the islands, including nearly a dozen who entered a contest to fly from Oakland to Honolulu sponsored by James Dole of pineapple fame. It wasn’t until 1936 that Pan Am began flying passengers on a commercial airline, paving the way for Hawai‘i as the tourist destination we know today.

Credit Hawaii State Archives

Historian Burl Burlingame says the solar-powered plane, Solar Impulse 2, represents a different kind of transformation. "The history of aviation is also the history of propulsion," said Burlingame. "Coming up with a renewable form of propulsion may completely revolutionize the way we do things."

Van der Linden says Hawai‘i’s role in the Solar Impulse flight is less about aviation and more a technology of the future. "What they're trying to do is say what we can do with solar power," said van der Linden. "And with enough investment, we can make it much efficient than it is right now."