In 1919, when the England-to-Australia air race was announced, Darwin Airport was established in the suburb of Parap to act as the Australian Terminal. Darwin hence operated two airports, a civilian airport and a military field.
In 1945, the Department of Aviation made the existing Darwin military airfield available for civil aviation purposes. As a result, the civilian airport at Parap was closed down and airport operations were combined with the military airport.
In 1946, the Australian Federal Government developed a 'joint-user policy' for civilian use of the already well-established Darwin military airfield which still exists today.
With a relatively quiet life early in its existence, Darwin Airport grew in importance during World War II. Darwin Airport proved an invaluable asset to the Allied Forces, acting as the launching pad for numerous attack missions in the South-East Asian theatre. While it was not all happy sailing for Darwin Airport, taking many hits from various Japanese bombing runs, the airport played host to some famous allied aircraft types such as the Spitfire, Hudson Bomber, Kittyhawks, C-47, B-24 Liberator, B-17 Fortress and the PBY Catalina, to name a few. During and after World War II, Darwin as a city grew and as a result so did the demand for domestic and international air travel. With the domestic airlines, Australian National Airways, Ansett Airways and Trans Australia Airlines, all operating throughout World War II and the post-war era, Darwin Airport was coming of age. In the late 1950s the government allowed a civil terminal to be established.
Between 1950 and 1974, Darwin Airport acted as the primary domestic and international airport for the Northern Territory and a very important tech stop for airlines, such as Qantas, flying the range-limited L1049 Constellations, requiring a refuelling stop when flying from many Australian ports to Asia and beyond.
In 1974, disaster struck Darwin in the form of Cyclone Tracy and Darwin Airport again played a vital role in supporting the city through receiving supplies and personnel. After Cyclone Tracy literally flattened the city of Darwin, Ansett-ANA, Trans Australia Airlines and Qantas, assisted in evacuating some 25,628 people by air, with the latter setting a world record with the most number of passengers carried on a B747-200 (Qantas carried 673 passengers on one evacuation flight, mostly women and children; no baggage or cargo was carried). This was an early example of the airport's ability to support Darwin and greater Australia in times of disaster.
On 1 April 1989, the Federal Airports Corporation (FAC) assumed responsibility for the civil facilities at Darwin International Airport. The terminal building was officially opened in December 1991.
On 10 June 1998, Northern Territory Airports Pty Ltd obtained a 50-year lease, plus a 49-year option from the Commonwealth Government to manage and develop the civil area of Darwin International Airport (DIA). The airport-leased area consists of 311 hectares of land.