For almost a 100 years, Broome Airport has been leading the development of Western Australia’s most popular tropical destination.
It began in December 1921 when pioneer aviator Major Norman Brearley and his co-pilot Charles Kingsford Smith delivered the first weekly consignment of airmail and passengers to the thriving pearling community.
The trip – from Geraldton to Derby - serviced Carnarvon, Onslow, Roebourne, Port Hedland and Broome. It covered 1900 kilometres using six Bristol Tourer biplanes.
The service has continued – almost uninterrupted - through war and peacetime to become one of Australia’s most awarded regional air services.
The airport was a stretch of smooth sand at Cable Beach for the first 14 years until MacRobertson Miller Aviation (MMA) secured the air mail contract and built the main 1500 metre east west runway and a 1000 metre cross-wind runway. MMA also established the first Broome airport terminal – a tin-covered shed.
In 1936, the RFDS was registered in WA and began bringing key medical services to the people of Western Australia’s remote north west. The RFDS service was part of a growing dependence on air services.
In 1942, Broome became an important refuelling stop for military aircraft after the outbreak of World War 2. It was also a stopover for flying boats carrying Dutch refugees from Java.
On March 3, 1942, the worst day in Broome’s history, Japanese zero fighters attacked the undefended port destroying 24 aircraft and killing 70 people.
The attack was a tragedy for the community, but produced at least one colourful anecdote which found its way into wartime folklore.
A Dutch DC-3 which had flown in from Java, was gunned down by Japanese fighters and crashed on the beach about 100 kilometres north of Broome. The passengers were unaware that the aircraft was carrying diamonds worth more than $30 million given to the pilot by Dutch authorities for safe-keeping.
A week later a local beachcomber Jack Palmer found some of the diamonds – worth about $42,000 – but the rest were never recovered. Jack Palmer was tried for stealing the gems, but he was acquitted. The mystery has never been solved.
After the War, the airport was progressively upgraded to take bigger aircraft and payloads. In 1991, the business was sold by the Federal Department of Transport to a private company Airport Engineering Services – later to become Broome International Airport.
The transition to private ownership marked the beginning of an important new era for the business.
By the 1990s Broome had become a substantial tourism, commercial, primary produce and government service centre.
The complex was upgraded with new runways, terminals, taxiways, aircraft parking aprons, fuel facilities and general aircraft and airline facilities in the following years.
The commercial era at Broome International Airport triggered a series of major improvements.
As a result, passenger numbers increased from 42,698 a year in 1992 to 372,634 a year in 2007.
Apart from redevelopment of the air terminal and operational facilities, BIA constructed or supported a number of significant additions, including -
- A major heliport to service offshore oil and gas developments
- A Royal Flying Doctor Service Kimberley headquarters and transfer station
- Expanded general aviation capacity
- Passenger check-in and luggage handing upgrades
As part of the investment in heliport facilities, BIA established a joint venture with the Djarindjin Aboriginal community on Dampier Peninsula to refuel and service helicopters on the way to oil fields in Browse Basin. The Djarindjin airport was later upgraded to serve as a transfer station for Royal Flying Doctor Service operations.
In June 2009 the company developed a Master Plan for the airport, including long term strategy to relocate to the outskirts of Broome.
The proposal has been deferred, in part, because regular surveys show that local passengers prefer the air service in its present central location. However some elements of the air port’s activities, such as helicopter flight training, could be relocated in future.
The company’s achievements were recognised in 2014 when BIA was honoured as the ‘Regional Airport of the Year’, in the Australian Aviation Association’s National Industry Awards. The award was based on the extensive improvements to the facilities and services and the company’s commitment to help stimulate Broome’s economic development.
This philosophy of taking the initiative on airport development was reflected in the recent program of trial flights between Singapore and Broome. The innovative plan is part of a sustained strategy of investment in the future of Broome and the Kimberley region.