Near my office is Ayala Triangle Park, the peaceful ‘green lung’ of the city that is surrounded by the skyscrapers of Manila’s central business district. I frequently drive past the park and often reflect on the New Zealander who was responsible for building Manila’s first international airport on that site.
Nielsen Field before WW2, the arrow indicating the terminal building
The streets forming the boundaries of the triangular park recall the land’s earlier use — the runways of the airport are now Paseo de Roxas and Ayala Avenue. Makati Avenue was a taxiway. The airport terminal and control tower is now the delightful Filipinas Heritage Library building.
New Zealander Laurie Nielsen came to the Philippines with his American wife Annette in the early 1930s and developed business interests. Laurie was keen on aviation and successfully interested other investors to join him in developing a flying school and airport on land leased from the Ayala estate. As well as home to the flying school it became Manila’s main aerial gateway to the world, used by several airlines including Philippine Airlines which began flights in March 1941.
But war changed all of that. Commercial flights stopped in October 1941 and the airlines had to make room for US military aircraft. Just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, on 8 December 1941, Nielsen Field (as it was known to the military) was bombed. During the Japanese occupation the airport was a military base, and after the war it was restored and again used for commercial air services.
The old terminal building today
Manila’s airport was relocated to Parañaque in 1948, where it still is today. Nielsen Field’s runways were eventually converted into roads but the Ayala family preserved the airport’s passenger terminal and control tower, which came to be known as Nielsen Tower.
Unfortunately Laurie Nielsen met a sad end. His wife and two sons were sent to an internment camp at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. As a British subject Nielsen was taken for internment in Hong Kong, and his family never saw or heard from him again. By the end of the war Nielsen’s businesses and most of his properties were gone, and his wife and sons soon left the Philippines for the USA. But New Zealander Laurie Nielsen’s legacy remained — the airport he had built, and the boost it had given to commercial aviation in the Philippines.
New Zealand still has aviation links with this country, with companies working in areas such as calibrating navigation aids, installing baggage-handling systems and contributing to the building of new airports. There are many opportunities for more business links in this sector. New Zealand has a vibrant aviation industry, with world-standard expertise in areas such as aircraft maintenance and modification, design and custom fit-out of aircraft interiors, and training of pilots, engineers, cabin crew and air traffic controllers. New Zealand also produces small military and general aviation aircraft, including a versatile utility plane that is very suited to the Philippines and has astounding performance.
The airfield site today, with the terminal building in the left foreground
New Zealand’s aviation expertise isn’t surprising, given the high rate of aircraft ownership and an industry that goes back a long way. A New Zealand flying school was Boeing’s first international customer, helping that aircraft manufacturer to become established, and many even reckon that a New Zealander flew before the Wright brothers. So it is fitting that the father of commercial aviation in the Philippines was a kiwi too.