In the early 1924 a paddock (now playing fields near the inner Canberra suburb of Dickson) was the ‘designated’ airfield for Canberra and known as the Northbourne Aviation Ground. However, as Canberra was not a scheduled destination, it was mostly used for emergency landings for aircraft on domestic routes such as Sydney to Adelaide.
In late 1926 with the opening of Parliament House approaching and celebrations with a Royal Australian Airforce flying display, the Dickson airfield was considered unsuitable to host the variety of aircraft expected. Instead, a paddock in the Majura Valley owned by the Campbell family, graziers at the time, was deemed by Airforce Captain Henri Petre to be ‘absolutely ideal for flying’, with landing distances of ‘not less than 1000 yards in all directions’.
So in 1926 this site at the corner of the Majura Valley Road and the Queanbeyan-Duntroon Road was leased to the Department of Defence. Four years later it was handed over to the government’s then-civil aviation control.
The RAAF may have erected a wooden hut for service personnel attending the opening of Parliament House, but the first building formally documented at the ‘Duntroon Aerodrome’ (later to become Canberra Aerodrome) was a large hangar in 1936 at the site where the northern end of Canberra’s present terminal stands.
By 1939 work had already begun on construction of a military base on the opposite side of the aerodrome from the civilian hangar.
From this time until 2003 when the RAAF base was decommissioned, the airport has operated for the needs of both defence and civil aviation. The remaining defence presence on the north-eastern side of the airport now operates the Prime Minister’s VIP fleet of aircraft.
Throughout these decades, the airport runways continued to be upgraded and lengthened as aircraft sizes increased and aircraft began landing with greater frequency.
The airport terminal too, has undergone some major changes. Firstly, it was façade improvement in the early 1950s, followed by small extensions. Between 1960 and 1970 passenger numbers exploded form 206,096 a year to more than half a million, so in 1970-71 a bigger terminal was built.
In late 1980 with news of the forthcoming opening of New Parliament House in 1988, a new domestic terminal was needed requiring a major restructuring of the existing terminal. Rolling additions continued throughout the early 1990s.
In 1998 the Federal Government sold the Canberra Airport to Canberra businessman Terry Snow and his family. It was an airport with declining facilities and rundown aviation infrastructure. The existing terminal alone had 42 different floor levels, having been renovated, added to and built in so many stages.
At that time each end of the terminal was owned by existing airlines which had control over capital works and so major upgrades could not be undertaken. It wasn’t until Terry Snow was able to purchase the ex-Ansett end of the terminal from administrators that major upgrades could begin if not over the whole site, then key pieces of infrastructure. These included major runway, apron and car park upgrades, a new hangar, development of a new entrance, and internal facilities.
Five years later after negotiations with Qantas, the Airport reached an agreement on developing a completely new terminal on the existing site. By 2009, the Canberra Airport AirVolution had begun.