It’s been more than a month since a skydive plane crash killed 11 people on Oahu’s North Shore. Today for the first time, the owner of Oahu Parachute Center talked publicly about the tragedy, and what’s ahead. Always Investigating has been digging into skydiving safety since the crash, each time asking Oahu Parachute Center’s owner George Rivera for a response. Today, he was ready to answer.
At the Oahu Parachute Center facility at Dillingham Airfield, it’s as if time stands still. The calendar stops at June, the month the deadly crash happened, and just days before what would have been a company biennial anniversary.
“This is two years later,” owner George Rivera says, pointing to the June 26 date starred as their 2-year-anniversary. “The 21st (of 2019) was the accident, which was (two years to) the day of the first load that we flew.”
Rivera is referring to the first load they took up two years ago — June 21, 2017 — a test run ahead of their opening day. He had leased his plane from a California owner. Always Investigating previously reported this same plane had partially come apart in mid-air over the San Francisco Bay Area in 2016.
Always Investigating asked, why lease that airplane after it had been through the incident in which it sustained damage in California?
“Because when I first saw the airplane, it was disassembled in a hanger in California and they were rebuilding the entire empanage in the aircraft, rebuilt with brand new cables, the whole thing was being rebuilt,” Rivera said. “I thought to myself, this is a good airplane. First of all, the FAA would never have let it fly across the ocean if it wasn’t in tip top shape, they would never do it. So the airplane had to pass all its phase inspections.
The Federal Aviation Administration cleared Oahu Parachute Center to start taking passengers on it again, and the plane flew fine for years.
“You know so it’s not like it was in bad shape, there was never any complaints during the entire operating procedure,” Rivera said. “To this day we don’t know exactly what happened.”
Always Investigating asked, what does Rivera think happened?
“I can speculate, this is just my opinion, I believe it was a little bit of complacency among the boys. I’m not quite sure.”
Always Investigating asked, complacency in what way?
“I’m not sure, maybe it was a little bit of distraction in the cockpit,” Rivera said. “I know there was nothing wrong with the airplane, I do know that.
Rivera says most skydiving companies try to operate 7 days a week, but Oahu Parachute Center devoted Tuesdays to aircraft maintenance.
Always Investigating asked, would his logs show that for the NTSB?
“Yes, the logbooks technically are all in order, we turned them over to the NTSB and the FAA,” Rivera said. “It’s still in their hands. (Closing for Tuesdays maintenance), that’s above and beyond what we needed to do but we did it.”
Rivera says he has no kids, but says the staff were like adopted sons. Six staff were killed, along with 5 guests. We spoke sitting in front a mural his staff Mike Martin had painted. George showed me another mural Mike painted on another building — a sunset backdrop — finished just a week or so before the fatal sunset flight.
Always Investigating asked, as he’s talked to the families, what does Rivera say?
“What do you tell these dads, what do you tell them? What do you say to a dad, who just lost his boy?” Rivera said. “ I don’t know what to say. I can’t tell them anything. I don’t know what happened and that’s the truth. I wasn’t here. I wasn’t in the airplane.”
“Sometimes — I don’t want to sound suicidal or whatever — but in a way I wish I was,” Rivera said, “because dealing with this is not very easy.”
Always Investigating asked, is there anything Rivera thinks could have been done differently that would have changed the fate of that day?
“I don’t know, I don’t think so,” Rivera said, “because our policies and our procedures that I put in place were right on.”
Always Investigating found many documented issues weren’t mechanical, but tenancy disputes between Rivera and the state Department of Transportation, which told Rivera to stop skydiving operations in April.
Always Investigating asked Rivera, why continue to operate after the Department of Transportation’s cease-and-desist letter back in the spring?
“The cease-and-desist letter was because of an administrative flaw,” he explains, describing it as a business registration and annual-report, good-standing-status matter. Also, tenancy had been in the name of his Hawaii Parachute Center LLC entity — a longtime repair loft — while skydiving was under the more recently registered Oahu Parachute Center LLC name.
“Once that was taken care of we told the property manager at the D.O.T. that we had taken care of that,” Rivera said, “and he said, ‘Ok, no problem.’ And I said well what about the cease and desist thing? And he said, ‘Don’t worry about it, just carry on as usual.’ ”
Always Investigating asked Rivera: “To be clear, the D.O.T. gave you verbal permission to continue?”
“Yes, by the property manager, yes,” Rivera said, “and I have a witness.”
Five days after the accident — on their 2-year anniversary June 26– another D.O.T. letter came, this time a notice to vacate.
Always Investigating asked Rivera, if he has a letter of eviction in hand, how are we sitting here today at the Dillingham facility?
“Because even though the letter of eviction said they were going to give us 5 days, after having been here for 30 years, 5 days is probably not enough to move everything,” Rivera said. “I have a row of sewing machines in the loft. That’s a maintenance facility. I talked to Roy Sakata who’s the D.O.T. airport division’s manager, and he told me that he would work with me on a more realistic timeline, and he has been.”
The federal investigation into what caused the accident is still ongoing. The state Department of Labor says they’ve received some family inquiries about workers-compensation death-benefits, but Rivera says all aboard were classified independent contractors. Rivera also tells me there’s no insurance policy that covers airborne accidents or skydives. He says he’s heard from attorneys but says there’s nothing much of value left, and he won’t go back into the skydive tour business.