John Rodgers International Airport used to be the name of the Danial K Inouye International Airport in Honolulu. Today, there is still a John Rodgers Airport – but it is not the big one you fly into here in Hawaii – instead it is the little training and tourist airport located in Kalaeloa on Oahu. So, who was John Rodgers and why are these airports named after him?
First of all, it wasn’t just airports that were named after him. There were also six U.S. Naval Ships named after Rodgers, his father, and his grandfather. They were all important Naval officers. But let’s just focus on John Rodgers the aviator for now. In 1911, Rodgers became the 2nd Naval officer to fly for the U.S. Navy. The first plane he flew was actually delivered by Orville Wright…
While all of that is impressive, it’s not why I’m writing about him. In 1925, Rodgers decided to push aviation technology to the limits and attempt a flight from California to Hawaii. If successful, he would have been the first – but – he wasn’t successful and that left the success to Amelia Earhardt. So, why am I writing about a failed attempt and why were airports named after a guy who didn’t succeed?
Because it is an epic story. Rodgers and his crew ran out of fuel half way to Hawaii. They were supposed to be able to land the plane on the water and refuel from a Navy ship but due to communication and navigation errors – they never found the ship. So they were stuck in a plane with no fuel in the middle of the Pacific. Did they give up and die? No way.
Rodgers took fabric from one of the aircraft wings and created a sail for his plane. Then, he and his crew sailed the plane the rest of the way to Hawaii! They ran out of food and had limited water for a week of the journey and despite the failure they set the record for non-stop air distance for a seaplane. They were welcomed to Hawaii as heroes.
Rodgers died in a plane crash just a year later. He was 45 years old.
The first place that most people step onto the Hawaiian Islands is the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. The airport is named for Daniel K. Inouye, one of Hawaii’s deceased U.S. Senators and a World War II medal of Honor winner. Located on the western edge of Honolulu, the airport was known as Honolulu International Airport for much of its life. The theee letter airport identifier is HNL. We get nearly 22 million visitors and residents stepping onto Hawaiian soil each year through HNL brought by more than 278,000 flights! This makes it one of the busiest airports in the United States. One thing for sure – it’s the busiest airport on Oahu!
HNL is the home hub for Hawaii-based Hawaiian Airlines and it serves all of the Hawaiian Islands (Hawaii, Kauai, Maui, Lanai, Molokai) and has flights to the mainland USA as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Tahiti, American Samoa, Guam, and several other Pacific Rim destinations.
HNL opened first in 1927 as John Rodgers Airport. Keehi Lagoon was where the majority of planes landed in those days and most of the traffic was seaplanes. As the lagoon was dredged the dredgings were used to fill in what is now the reef runway as well as some of the land that modern day HNL sits upon. During WWII (after the bombing of Pearl Harbor) it was one of the largests airports in the USA with a land area of 4019 acres and a total of seven runways (4 on land and 3 on sea). In 1947, the airport was renamed Honolulu International Airport – poor John Rodgers was lost to history and very few Hawaii residents today have ever even heard of him. This is unfortunate since Rodgers and his story are absolutely awesome. He was the first aviator to try to fly to Hawaii from California. His aircraft was a flying boat and when it ran out of fuel, he and his crew were forced to improvise sails and after a week without food – finally managed to make it to Honolulu Harbor. It’s an absolutely epic story.
In any event, HNL became the third busiest airport in the USA by 1950 and had the longest runway in the world in 1953. With the age of jet travel, flights started coming from abroad. Over the course of many years the terminals have been changed and upgraded – though the airport still feels quite dated. Poor John Rodgers lost the terminal named for him too. HNL was the transpacific hub for Pan Am (Pan American Airways) until the airline ceased operations. Pan Am is an amazing story in itself from the founding and innovations of transport to the glamourization of the Asian flight attendants – then called stewardesses.
Through the years, a series of fare wars and airline rivalries have left Hawaiian Airlines the only survivor in Hawaii. It has defeated Aloha, Pan Am, Go, Mokulele, Interisland and many others. While it’s always great to see the fare wars…the inevitable defeat of other airlines and then the rise of interisland fares is never fun.
There are currently three terminals with a fourth terminal being built. Quite honestly, the airport is a mess and it feels like it is stuck in the 1970s with terrible concrete architecture and a dull and boring mix of high end tourist shops, duty free shopping, and mediocre restaurants. There is a nice garden in the center – but beyond that – not much to entertain, educate, or amuse those who are stuck there for any length of time.
The majority of flights are to the USA mainland with a majority of those going to the West Coast cities of Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, and San Diego. Las Vegas is not far behind. About two thirds of international flights are to Japan but Chinese flights are growing in importance. Vancouver and Sydney are also important international flights.
There have been an amazingly low number of fatalities or incidents involving HNL or flights coming to or going from here. In 1962 a Canadian Pacific flight crashed and killed 27 passengers. On August 11, 1982 a small bomb went off on a Pan Am flight from Tokyo as it approached Honolulu – it killed one person. The most interesting incident is the Bojinka plot which was foiled in 1995 in the Philippines but ultimately developed into the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the USA. If you are interested, the whole thing reads like an epic adventure story. Through the years there have been small incidents and hopefully that is all there will ever be.
In any event – I hope you aren’t trapped in the airport for long. Almost all of the fun stuff is outside. There are city buses, taxis, Uber and Lyft, as well as car rental opportunities. If you really want to, you can walk from the airport to Honolulu or Waikiki but it will take anywhere from 2 to 5 hours to get anywhere you want to go on foot.