Planes, dunes and roller coasters

ON THE LOOKOUT: Tirangi Rd is known for the airport's control tower, but also hides a wealth of other history.
ON THE LOOKOUT: Tirangi Rd is known for the airport's control tower, but also hides a wealth of other history.

If Tirangi Rd in Rongotai could speak it would tell tales of earthquakes, sand dunes, centenaries and aeroplanes.

The one-kilometre road runs parallel with the western side of Wellington Airport, from Rongotai Rd to Lyall Bay.

The name is most likely derived from te rangi, meaning sky, because of the way it rises up to a steep hill at the northern end.

The hill was the only part above water before the 1460s, when the Haowhenua earthquake joined Miramar peninsula (then an island) and Kilbirnie.

In 1855, another major earthquake lifted the land again.

The Lyall Bay end of Tirangi Rd was mostly sand dunes, and houses were built on the north end.

Tirangi Rd's main connection with the history of the area is via the airport.

The sand hills were levelled in 1928, which enabled a couple of small runways to be built.

The next year, Charles Kingsford Smith touched down in Wellington at the end of the first trans-Tasman flight. The airport officially opened in 1935.

Even in the early days, landing in Wellington was not fun.

The airport was closed in September 1947, because rain would soak the grass landing strip making it unusable in the winter months.

Paraparaumu Airport became the major airport servicing the capital city.

In 1953, construction began on the official Wellington Airport.

More than three million cubic metres of earth and rock, including Rongotai Hill at the northern end, had to be shifted.

Several industries and 180 houses were removed, with the houses demolished or moved to reclaimed land around the northern end of Tirangi Rd.

It speaks volumes for the ability of generations of pilots that there has never been a fatal crash at Wellington Airport.

But in 1959 the newly extended runway was opened with an air show that nearly ended in disaster.

The pilot of a Royal Air Force Vickers Vulcan bomber clipped the southern end of the runway.

Fortunately he managed to right the plane, and rather than try to land at Wellington again, flew off to the safety of Ohakea Airport.

The Wellington air traffic control tower, built in the late 1950s at 36 Tirangi Rd, is the only tower in New Zealand with its own street address and letterbox - most towers are built on airport-owned land.

However, this distinction is about to end, because planning is advanced for the construction of a new tower, at Airport Retail Park.

Construction was to begin last year, but has been delayed by geological surveys of the ground.

The shopping centre at the southern end of Tirangi Rd has proved popular since it opened in 2004.

The complex features large shops for big brands such as The Warehouse, Kathmandu and Briscoes.

The western side of Tirangi Rd was the location of the 1940 New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, which attracted more than 2.5 million visitors. The country's population then was 1.6 million.

It sprawled across 222,000 square metres (22.5 hectares), and in 1939, 24,000sqm of land was requisitioned off Rongotai College.

The exhibition proved a massive drawcard and many schools from all around New Zealand made visits.

Perhaps the reason for the popularity of the exhibition was the theme park.

There was a 115kmh roller coaster ride, a darkened crazy house with tilting floors, a motorcyclist whirling around inside a cylindrical "wall of death" and many enticing sideshows.

The only remaining nod to the exhibition in the area is the Centennial Cafe in Kingsford Smith St.

The air force took over the buildings during World War II. A fire destroyed some of the buildings in 1946 and some were demolished during the airport extension. By 1950, only a third of the buildings remained and they were soon demolished.

The Wellingtonian