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lundi 29 juin 2015

Tahiti and its aisles*



Planes and isles
The Marquesans, they, saw, in 1925, the first airplane tear the Polynesian sky.  However, that's only finally on April 2, 1960, the first civilian aircraft landed on the runway of Tahiti Faa'a Airport.

Inseparable from the French nuclear program in the South Pacific and the infamous atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa (Tuamotu Archipelago), the opening of the Tahiti-Faa'a International Airport marked the end of an era: that of the traditional Polynesia.

You know the one which the travel agencies are trying to sell us again and again...

When the gods and tupuna* are flying
The traditional Polynesian memory is full of wonderful beings moving through the celestial domes, characters flowing in the air with processes ranging from magic and wind technologies.

The aerial fleet of Tahitian Olympus is in fact very well extensive. Thus, the gods (like men on occasion) were flying with their outriggers, rainbows, winds, clouds, flying fish ... and sometimes even without any accessories!

A titiraina made for us by Teiki Pambrun at Tetiaroa
Another interesting detail: in all the islands, Polynesian children developed air toys. Thus the titiraina was almost like a seaplane in miniature. It was a kind of monoplane, about 50 or 60 cm long made entirely with plant. The aim of the game is to send it out as far as possible on sea. Placed on the surface of the water, pushed by waves and wind, the craft takes off alone and is resting on the water sometimes up to 20 or 25 m. of the shore. These wonderful objects have unfortunately disappeared completely of our islands.

Another ancestral toy made adults like children so happy, even today on islands: pauma, the kite. "It was practiced by men and boys. The kites, made of tapa, were of different shapes. They represented either a man or a turtle, sometimes a frigate ... Polynesians were flying their kites in a very great height. Some were of very large size and required two or three men to hold them.


Children and Polynesian kites seen by Ta'ata
Long before the first plane, the sky of Polynesia was therefore already graced in the imagination of Ma'ohi, by all kinds of gear of air navigation. The islanders were loans to focus on the Space birds (manu) as the flying dugouts (pahi-Reva)…

The first wing beats
From 1925, the first tear in the Marquesas sky, to 1962, when Polynesia was finally connected to the network of global air routes, a lot's happened in the trade winds…

From its beginnings to the present, the history of the French Polynesian Aviation can be divided into four very different chapters.

The ZK-AMM of the TEAL on takeoff at the “pointe-de-Fare Ute”
The first time, that of the pioneers, is written by the aircrafts based on military ships from various nations and some seaplanes arrived by boat in spare parts. This period was marked by numerous incidents and accidents.

The second step is the creation and operation of the base of the Naval Air Fare Ute in Papeete. Designed to accommodate and ensure the maintenance of the Navy seaplanes, it remains in service from 1936 to 1942.

The third installment of this saga air, and most astonishing is that of the air base of Bora Bora, created by the US military. The works will begin in 1942 and will be officially commissioned in April 1943. This facility will be closed by the Navy on June 2, 1946. Since then, it became the first civilian airfield of Polynesia.

Finally, on March 5, 1961, the current chapter of our air history opens with the inauguration of the first section (3,416 meters) of the airport of Tahiti Faa'a. Civil Aerodrome whose vocation is, let’s not forget still, at first mainly military and strategic because its construction is directly related to the French nuclear program in the South Pacific ... That's from this basic structure that the international and inter-island air networks of Polynesia may give rise and grow to become what they are today.

The adventurers' time
So many strange birds went past in the Polynesian sky between September 9, 1925, the day the first flight over the Marquesas, and July 1936, date of the first flight from the base of Fare Ute.

In parallel to the operations conducted by military aircrafts, mainly loaded on US and French ships, an unknown number of planes in pieces, arrived by boats, were assembled on site and wrote the first pages of our aviation history. Feeding abundantly, in passing, the accidents column of the Polynesian newspapers...

Arrived in Tahiti in 1935, "the flying flea" never should receive its engine...
So much so that relatively little is known about civil aviation in Polynesia, during these eleven years. Except, of course, the detailed relationship, with pictures to prove, that the local press has done about any incidents or accidents involving aircraft...

Nevertheless Polynesians immediately understood all the benefit they could derive from this means of transport particularly suitable for far apart distances between our islands.

The time of the seaplanes
Curiously, it was not until the last months of 1929 to see the first French military aircraft ditching in Tahiti. He took off from the deck of The Tourville cruiser, sailing off Fakarava.

An US CAMS 37 landed in Papeete Harbor for repairs
From that day, the traffic of these hybrid aircrafts continues to grow, until the creation of the Naval Air base of Fare Ute in 1936.

Alas, this military installation will remain in service six short years. It’s in fact permanently closed in 1942.

A bird's eye view of Air Base Fare Ute
 Yet from 1929 to 1961, the Polynesian inter-island air traffic relies almost exclusively on this type of equipment. Even the transition from military to civilian airport facilities of Bora Bora doesn’t hinder economic exploitation of these birds with fins.

Bit by bit, with the gradual opening of tracks on the increasingly numerous islands of our five archipelagos, the floatplane leaves his place in heaven for conventional aircrafts. The latest trade air links take place in 1964. However, the bulk Bermuda continues to serve the CEA (Atomic Energy Commission) until September 30, 1970. That day, for the last time, it rallies Manihi to Papeete. The history of the seaplanes in Polynesia stops there, with it.

The Grumman Mallard of Air Tahiti on layover at Taiohae beach in October 1953
We are nevertheless entitled to ask whether, technological developments helping, it's not the ideal way for our country of 118 islands. Indeed: a seaplane doesn't require track and, in an emergency, can down anywhere…

The Gl’s in Bora Bora
On 7 December 1941, the US naval base of Pearl Harbor is bombed by Japanese planes. In one month, the Pentagon decided to build two air bases: Aitutaki on the Cook Islands and Bora Bora in Polynesia. An incredible chapter of incalculable consequences of Polynesian history just opened.

The hangar of the American base at Bora Bora
Two months after the tragedy of Hawaii, 4,500 men and thousands of tons of tools and equipment landed in Bora Bora... The installation is operational in April 1943, i.e. after just five months of works!
The base is closed down after the departure of the last G.I., on 2 June 1946. This legacy will change the course of Polynesian history...
While the main runway is rehabilitated in 1958, it’s used as it stands (that's to say very average...) by civilian aircraft in 1947.

The reception of Air France DC4 on the track of Bora Bora, March 30, 1950
Today, Bora Bora airport doesn't host international flights. However, it’s one of the most active in the whole Polynesia, except Tahiti-Faa'a course.

Tahiti-Faa'a: the door of paradise

If the decision to build an international airport in Polynesia was born in 1950, it was ratified on June 17, 1955, by the Territorial Assembly, after heated debates and controversies. It’s only in August 1956 that the site Faa'a, Tahiti, is retained.

The Faa'a runway about to be completed (1960)
It must be said that at the time, nuclear test sites in Algeria are seriously threatened by the explosive situation that we know. De Gaulle, who insists on "his" strike force, validates the choice of Polynesia in order to move the French nuclear tests. Thus the Tahiti-Faa'a airport project is recognized as public utility by Decree of 12 December 1958.

Just like the Hong Kong trail built on the ocean, Faa'a track relies entirely on the fringing reef lying forty meters underwater... The works began in May 1959 and a first track section of 1965 m. is opened to traffic in October of that year.

Tahiti-Faa'a airport around 1965
It's a DC7C of TAI Company that arises first on this track just completed, followed within minutes later by a military Lancaster from Noumea.

It was not until 1961 to see the runway extended to 3416 m and allow the first jet aircraft to land. This is a DC8 of TAI and we are on March 5, 1961.

The airport platform viewed from above, today
The terminal will only be inaugurated in 1964. In the meantime, passengers and administrative services are content to rough shelters built on Motu Tahiri.

Wings, Companies and islands
The first Company to have established a regular line with Polynesia was New Caledonian and was called the Air Transport of the South Pacific (TRAPAS). That was in 1946. It used two seaplanes Catalina PBY5A and required 23 hours to rally Noumea to Tahiti, via Nandi in Fiji, Samoa, Aitutaki in Cook Islands and finally (after a night of rest for arriving in daylight ): Tahiti. The Company will be liquidated on January 22, 1951

From the Catalina of the TRAPAS Company...
By comparison, today we have 22 hours to rally Paris to Tahiti aboard Air Tahiti Nui Airbus, counting the technical stopover in Los Angeles!

It would be tedious to list here all the Companies that made a layover by Tahiti Faa'a. We therefore stick to incumbent operators such as TEAL, Qantas, Air Tahiti, UTA, RAI, TAI, Air Polynesia, Lan Chile, Air New Zealand, Air France, Corsair and, of course, Air Tahiti Nui, the Polynesian Company...

...To the Air Tahiti Nui Airbus...
The remoteness and isolation that are inviting you to savor the charm of our islands are partly responsible for the very random survival of Companies searching to exploit the Polynesia destination.

The very limited number of tourists, the local population of 270 000 inhabitants only and the geographical location far away from air routes frequently travelled, complicated extremely the business of the regular lines. All Companies have given up, face of these difficulties, with the exception of Air Tahiti who abandoned completely international routes to devote itself exclusively to the interisland lines; Air France which has the support of the French State and must, by its statutes to ensure territorial continuity; Air Tahiti Nui (ATN), Polynesian Company that survives only thanks to subsidies from its main shareholder: the Government of Polynesia. Moreover, in order for ATN continues its existence, local political power (at the time, the one of Gaston Flosse himself ...) had to bring its full weight to bear and all its maneuvers (up less reputable) to Corsair gives up and leaves room for the local Company. On this occasion, these are the lowest rates on the destination that disappeared, preventing definitely the less fortunate to afford the trip…Whether in one direction or the other.

About the local inter-island flights, the story was just as eventful. However, the situation was clarified and simplified since Air Tahiti won the support of local authorities, in return for the obligation to provide a public service mission.

 ...and to the ATR of  Air Tahiti
Today, things are clear: Air Tahiti has the monopoly on all the local traffic. Air Moorea (its subsidiary) didn’t survive the disaster of 9 August 2007 which caused twenty victims. Air Archipelagos endures and assures only today, in the main, the inter-island routes in the Marquesas… including the spectacular line of Nuku Hiva to Ua Pou.

Aviation safety in question
If Polynesians well remember the two tragic accidents of 23 May 2002 (five missing in a plane never recovered) and August 9, 2007 (quoted above) and, beyond the many broken wings during the early years of fenua (homeland) aerial history, the question of the safety of flights in French Polynesia is well and truly raised.

While no major disaster has further clouded our tropical sky, many "incidents" could have went very wrong. For the record, we will mention only two: on the September 12, 1993, landing on the runway of Tahiti Faa'a, the Boeing 747 of Air France from Los Angeles leaves  the center line of the  runway, rolls on the embankment and plunges into the lagoon. The plane stops on the coral reef, at the edge of the deep pass. On December 23, 2000, a DC 10 of Hawaiian Airlines knows about the same fate at the same place without casualties.

…That day, fortunately: more fear than harm
What the media almost never speak, these are the technical problems that cause the forced landings. According to some employees of the local civil aviation wishing (one wonders why) to remain anonymous, these incidents are far too common in the territory and would be indicative of poor maintenance, both of the air fleet and of airport infrastructure. On 13 January 2013, an ATR 72 of Air Tahiti, just taking off, had to make an emergency landing back on Tahiti-Faa'a airport after a fire on one of its engines, an incident that has not injured anybody, fortunately. 

So, wings and islands...
Given the many disturbances that threaten the air travel in the world, the very special geographical situation of French Polynesia, the very hypothetical cost of air links with our fenua and the local politico-economic peculiarities often comparable to a mafia system, very clever one who can predict what will be the next chapter of the Polynesian aeronautic story...


Wings, islands and dreams
As regards the past, I can only invite you to refer to the website of the “Société des Océanistes” which publishes extensively from Patrick O'Reilly's book. But especially obtain the remarkable publication of Jean-Louis Baggins "Aviation in Tahiti" from Polymages editions that has not left my office throughout the writing of this article and of which many originate illustrations accompany it. Alas, this editor doesn’t have a website. Only mean of contact with him, his email address: polymages@mail.pf.

In French Polynesia, air links have become one of the main pillars of economic, cultural and social survival. Yet they are seriously endangered by various phenomena: the rising water which directly threatens the runways of the airfield Tahiti Faa'a, the soaring price of air transport himself and, alas, corruption that plagues the local politic world and makes it almost impossible the healthy management of the airport platform, such as that of the two local Companies.

A plane dream on a dream island...
Do we have to, like our ancestors, be pinned down again and dream by playing with our kites and our titiraina resurrected?

An article of Julien Gué
Translated from French by Monak

Glossary:
tupuna: ancestor, grandparent

Note:
* “Tahiti and its aisles, Planes and isles”: The title in French is a play on words; the repetition of a sonority (alliteration) between “îles and ailes”, i.e. between wings (planes) and isles… But with “aisle seat” in the aeroplane or “aisle” of a church, the idea may be understood.


Copyrights Julien Gué and Monak. Ask for the authors’agreement before any reproduction of the text or the images on Internet or traditional press.



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