Issue 12.5: October/November 2009

Guiding Stars

Story by Dave Choo


Long before Western explorers set sail, Polynesian sailors were traversing thousands of miles of open ocean without the benefit of instruments or charts. These wayfarers found their maps in the stars above them, in the celestial bodies that guided them across the Pacific. No surprise then that when Hawaiian Airlines was deciding what to name its new fleet of long-range aircraft, it settled upon the stars and constellations that were such important beacons to early Polynesian navigators.


“We could have easily named our aircraft One, Two and Three,” says Debbie Nakanelua-Richards, “but instead we found something that captures what we are trying to achieve as a company. It’s about voyaging into the future while staying on the right path and staying connected to each other.” Debbie, a former Miss Hawaii who is a renowned hula dancer and lua (Hawaiian martial arts) practitioner, is Hawaiian Airlines’ senior manager for government and community relations; it’s her responsibility to ensure that everything new at the company is properly introduced with a Hawaiian blessing and identity. “The process involves a lot of thought,” she says. “It’s a reflection of leadership that encourages Hawaiian culture to be part of who we are as a company.” Debbie was involved in the airlines’ last naming project, when the planes in the current fleet were given the names of native birds. And this time, once the celestial theme was decided on, she didn’t have to go far for advice: Debbie’s husband is Billy Richards, longtime crew member of the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokulea, which in the ’70s ignited interest in Polynesian navigation when it sailed from Hawai‘i to Tahiti using the stars, wind, sea and sky; the canoe in many ways sparked the Hawaiian Renaissance that followed.  


Debbie turned to the knowledge of Hawaii’s traditional master navigators—Chad Babayan, Shorty Bertelmann, Bruce Blankenfeld, Chadd Paishon and Nainoa Thompson—as well as their teacher, the much-esteemed and revered Mau Pialug. “For both navigator and crew,” she says, “relying on their knowledge of the stars gives them a sense of where they are and what direction to head, which is critical to their ability to find islands in the sea.” Gradually a list of the most significant heavenly bodies came together and from it came the names that will grace each of the new Airbus planes that will join Hawaiian’s trans-Pacific fleet in the coming years.


The first christening will happen next April, when the first new plane, an Airbus A330-200, will be named Makalii. Makalii, known as Pleiades or the Seven Sisters in Western astronomy, is a cluster of stars that appears in the Northern Hemisphere’s wintertime sky; the stars are near to Earth and easy to view with the naked eye. In the Islands they are highly revered, having guided both Hawaiian voyagers and farmers preparing for harvest and the Makahiki. At the airline, the name Makalii was chosen to be the first because the constellation was high in the sky when the first Hawaiian Airlines plane took flight on Nov. 11, 1929.


The name Hokulea, or “star of gladness,” will christen Hawaiian’s second Airbus. Also known as Arcturus, this star is the brightest in the Northern Hemisphere and was the guiding beacon for sailors who made the long voyage north from the Marquesas and Tahiti to Hawai‘i. After Hokulea will come Iwakelii, or Iwa the Chief, a bird-like constellation known in the West as Cassiopeia; and later, Debbie’s favorite, Heiheionakeiki, a group of stars which points the way to Tahiti. In Hawaiian mythology, Heiheionakeiki is said to resemble a figure in a Hawaiian string game; in the West, the stars are known as the belt and sword of the constellation Orion. Other planes will be named for Hanaiakamalama, or the Southern Cross; Hokupaa, or Polaris, the North Star; Kealiiokonaikalewa, or Canopus; Namahoe, or Gemini’s Castor and Pollux; and Nahiku, or the Big Dipper.


“The stars were important reference points,” says Debbie, pointing out that they guided not just seafarers but everyone in the Islands. “For both navigators and native peoples, the stars provided the direction to chart your next course.”