Cairns Aerodrome

Cairns International and Domestic Airport


Airport Avenue, Cairns 4870

The airfield became a centre of activity for refuelling military aircraft during World War II and continued to be used as a base by civilian operators including Airlines of Australia and Australian National Airlines. Little evidence remains of the airfield’s wartime use although the footprints of the early runways have been incorporated into its recent development as a major international and domestic airport.

Cairns airfield goes back to 1928 when a local pilot, Tom McDonald, started operating his Gypsy Moth aircraft from a salt pan near the present airport. McDonald surfaced the strip with coal-ash, but he could only take of and land between high tides. By 1936 Cairns City Council had established an aerodrome near McDonald’s original strip and work on upgrading the runways was carried out by the Main Roads Commission during the last months of 1940 ahead of the wet season.


Cairns Aerodrome was taken over by the RAAF in 1941 and the main runway was extended. By mid-1941 the RAAF had erected a hut and the installation of more substantial works, including bomb storage sheds, was underway. Early in 1942 after Japan’s entry into World War II, further attempts were made to improve the runways for all weather use by larger military aircraft. This proved difficult however, as the runways had been laid down on mangrove mud.

The commanding officer of the US 46 Engineer Regiment, Colonel AG Matthews, arrived in Cairns in mid-April 1942 on an inspection of airfields in north Queensland. In its planned role as an Advanced Operational Air Base (AOB), a large number of aircraft dispersal areas were required. However, at Cairns the space was not available for extension of taxiways and construction of aircraft hideouts. This led to the momentous decision by Colonel Matthews, to develop Mareeba airfield as the main AOB for far north Queensland.

By May 1942 Cairns Aerodrome had become a major refuelling point on the coastal air route with a huge influx of military aircraft, particularly US Air Force traffic. In late May RAAF No.25 Operational Base Unit was established at Cairns and it was decided that the airfield would be retained a refuelling point only and all work was stopped on the construction of splinter-proof aircraft pens. During 1942 and 1943 the airfield was also used as a transport base for USAAF squadrons of the 374th Troop Carrier Group, hauling paratroopers for jump training over the Gordonvale district. The main runway was finally sealed during 1943.

Activity at Cairns airfield tapered off after the Japanese were pushed out of New Guinea. Soon after the Japanese surrender in August 1945, aircraft of all types began flying into Cairns from the islands, homeward bound to be scrapped. The airfield returned to civilian use after 1946 and its redevelopment as an international airport commenced during the 1980s.


Pearce, Howard (contributing author).

Vera Bradley. I Didn’t Know That: Cairns and district Tully to Cape York, 1939–1946, Service personnel and civilians, Boolarong Press, Brisbane, 1995.

Peter Nielsen. Diary of WWII North Queensland, Nielsen Publishing, Gordonvale, 1993.

Howard Pearce. WWII: NQ: A cultural heritage overview of significant places in the defence of north Queensland during World War II. Environmental Protection Agency, Brisbane, 2009.

Roger Marks, Queensland Airfields WW2: 50 years on, Brisbane, 1994.