An air base was originally proposed in the area in 1927, when Ohakea was selected as the most suitable site for a mooring mast for airships of the British Imperial Airship service. It was proposed to build one mast for a demonstration flight, with the potential for expansion to a full airship base with three masts, airship sheds and hydrogen production. However, there was no point in going ahead with the development of the site without a commitment from the Australian Government to build masts to provide bases in that country. When the Australian Government declined to build masts, the New Zealand Government declined likewise.
In 1935 the Labour government committed to an expansion of the military air service at the expense of the navy, seeing this as a way of reducing the total defence vote. At the end of 1935 the government accepted an air service expansion plan developed by RAF Wing Commander Ralph Cochrane.
The plan called for several new bases, with a major development at Ohakea, which would be home to 30 Wellington bombers on order for the RNZAF. Two large hangars (now hangars 2 and 3) were authorised to house the aircraft, to be designed by the Department of Public Works chief design engineer Charles Turner. Turner decided to build the hangars as monolithic reinforced concrete structures because structural steel could not be obtained in sufficient quantities without delays, while concrete and reinforcing steel could be delivered immediately. The same limitation forced Turner to adopt concrete doors. The arched hangars spanned 61 metres, with a height of 18 metres. The expense of the steel centering was spread across four hangars, as another two similar structures were ordered for RNZAF Base Auckland. The two Ohakea hangars were completed in 1939, at a cost of about £76,750 each.
Ultimately, the Wellington bombers for which the hangars were built never arrived, as they were donated to Britain at the start of the Second World War, forming The New Zealand Squadron. However, the hangars have been in continuous use since their construction, and (re-roofed in steel) remain in use today.
During the Second World War, Ohakea was the RNZAF's main training base for operational conversion to fighters, observers/navigators for medium bombers and air gunners. After the war, No. 14 Squadron RNZAF, No. 42 Squadron RNZAF and No. 75 Squadron RNZAF were re-formed at Ohakea, and No.1 Repair Depot relocated from RNZAF Base Te Rapa in Hamilton, New Zealand.
In August 1966 No. 1 Flying Training School RNZAF at Wigram was renamed Pilot Training Squadron (PTS).
Since the end of the war Ohakea has been the RNZAF's strike base, with Nos 14 and 75 Squadrons resident. A long-time resident, No 42 Squadron relocated to Whenuapai in 1984 to allow the relocation of 2 Squadron RNZAF to HMAS Albatross, Nowra, Australia in 1991. In 1993, RNZAF flying training previously carried out at Wigram by the Pilot Training Squadron RNZAF and the Central Flying School RNZAF moved to Ohakea. Also in 1993 a new aviation wing of the Royal New Zealand Air Force Museum was opened at Ohakea. 14 Squadron and 75 Squadron disbanded in November 2001, and 42 Squadron relocated back to Ohakea in January 2002. There are currently around 1200 personnel based at Ohakea, which makes it the second largest Air Force base behind RNZAF Base Auckland.
A plan to consolidate all RNZAF operations at Ohakea was abandoned in March 2009 as part of a change of policy on the part of the incoming National Government who chose to retain two operational air bases, Ohakea and Whenuapai, for use by the RNZAF.
In 2012 following the arrival of NH-90 and A-109 helicopters a new multi purpose hangar has been built to accommodate the 3 Squadron helicopter fleet. Other significant infrastructure has included a brand new main gate duty centre which the NZDF Military Police and RNZAF Security Forces personnel occupy, an international air movements terminal named after Sir Richard Bolt which was completed in 2014. This allows Ohakea the ability to accommodate international civilian flights if Wellington Airport was closed.
No. 14 Squadron RNZAF is to reform in 2015 to take up the initial pilot training role with the new T-6C Texan IIs. This will mean the disbandment of Pilot Training Squadron.
In 2017 it was announced that the Republic of Singapore Air Force is looking at establishing a permanent F-15 fighter jet training base at Ohakea with an estimated presence of 500 Singaporian personnel. This would see Ohakea undergo significant infrastructure improvements to accommodate the new F-15 fighter jets.
Personnel Strength: around 1200Flying Training Headquarters
RNZAF Operations Squadron
New Zealand Defence Force Military Police
RNZAF Security Forces
Base Medical Flight
RNZAF Fire Rescue
Ohakea is a secondary diversion airport for heavy civilian aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and Boeing 777 if both Auckland and Christchurch airports are temporarily closed. Ohakea now has the facilities to process a significant number of passengers since the completion of the new terminal.
On 29th January 2017, an Emirates Airbus A380 was diverted to RNZAF Base Ohakea due to a Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 blocking the main runway at Auckland International Airport due to a landing gear malfunction. The Emirates A380 was refuelled by RNZAF fuel tankers and departed for Auckland. This is the first time an A380 has landed at Ohakea.
Ohakea has been the subject of a feasibility study into mixed-use military and civilian freight capability, which has included lengthening the main runway to accommodate the Boeing 747.
The Ohakea Airfield was used as a temporary motor racing circuit, predominantly in the 1950s. A 5.6 kilometre track hosted the inaugural New Zealand Grand Prix in 1950, while a shorter 3.5 kilometre circuit hosted the Ohakea Trophy from 1951 to 1956 and further national meetings from 1959 to 1962. The circuit was reopened for historic events in the 1980s.