HONOLULU (KHON2) — The future of Dillingham Airfield is in limbo.
Always Investigating found out the state Department of Transportation has told the U.S. Army it intends to vacate, leaving aviators wondering what’s next.
The state DOT leased and ran Dillingham Airfield for nearly 50 years and has just recently told the feds they want out within months
The airfield on Oahu’s North Shore is home to Hawaii aviation ranging from skydiving companies to commercial and private planes, flight schools, gliders and ultralights.
“This is the only sailplane port in all of Hawaii,” says pilot John Sequeira.
The airfield is owned by the Army, but the state has operated it under lease since 1972. The state’s current lease runs through 2024. Always Investigating confirmed the U.S. Army unexpected news from the DOT on Jan. 23.
“The U.S. Army recently received a letter from the Hawaii Department of Transportation announcing the State’s intent to exercise its right to terminate the lease early and vacate Dillingham Airfield by June 30, 2020,” a U.S. Army Hawaii spokesperson told KHON2.
“To my knowledge this has been very short notice,” said Sen. Gil Riviere, (D) District 2, who represents the area. “I don’t believe the Army or the FAA were expecting this. I think it caught them by surprise.”
It also surprised the owners of the nearly 50 civilian aircraft and multiple businesses onsite; together they account for 36,000 civilian aircraft operations annually at the airfield, according to the FAA. Tenants tell KHON2 they have heard nothing formal from their state DOT landlord.
“We’ve got to make plans, all of us that have businesses here,” said Steve Lowry, owner of Acroflight International, and operator of the Aviation Explorers Post 2013 youth learning program. He has been a tenant at Dillingham for about 20 years. “It would be a big economic loss. But beyond that, my passion is training the next generation of pilots, particularly young kids, and local kids that don’t have the money to learn how to fly. We make it affordable for them by our scouting program.”
“It is currently home to a number of successful businesses that employ, directly or indirectly, hundreds of local residents,” Rep. Sean Quinlan, (D) District 47, whose House of Representatives district covers the area. “The airfield, its businesses, and the Kealia trail behind it are important recreational resources for the North Shore community.”
“There are a plethora of things done out here that if the state feels that in their infinite wisdom they need to close this place, I feel the repercussions are even more than they can see it’s going to be,” Sequeira said.
Area leaders and aviators are pleading with the DOT to rethink the move.
“I’ve called on the governor to help with this decision and I’ve asked directly to the DOT to reconsider the short timeline,” Riviere said. “I’ve been working for the last two weeks, trying to work the back channels, to try to save this from becoming a big catastrophe, which I think this surely will be if they decide to carry out and close the airfield. They’ve got to allow some sort of transition plan if not continuing of the airport.”
The state DOT spokesperson told KHON2 that because the state doesn’t own Dillingham Airfield it “does not have the authority to close the facility in its entirety.” DOT did not answer KHON2’s questions about specific timelines and reasons for the change, saying only: “If additional details become available regarding any potential changes at the facility we will be sure to share them with the public when they are finalized.”
KHON2 asked, could a private entity, a nonprofit or a third-party manager take over?
“It’s hard to say. There are airfields that probably could be operated by some sort of co-op, but you can’t do that with no notice,” Riviere said.
The U.S. Army spokesperson told KHON2 they are “now analyzing the possible impacts resulting from the state’s early termination notice, to determine the way forward.”
A fatal skydiving crash there last summer revealed management-tenant disputes, liability issues and a paucity of safety and maintenance resources onsite. The Army had told Always Investigating after the crash that if the state ever did walk away, the Army “would likely cease all for-profit commercial activity there as their primary mission is soldier readiness.”
Many say they think the crash, and a renewed focus on airplane and helicopter regulation from here to Washington, play a part in the state’s decision making.
“I think the state is probably worried about their legal liability and they just want out of it,” Lowry said. “I can understand that they’re concerned that things run safely out here, and they should be. It just breaks my heart, when something like that happens, and of course it has huge repercussions. It gives aviation a real bad image, which it shouldn’t have because most of us fly very safely and are very safely oriented.”
“The tragedy that occurred several months ago was a brand-new startup company that was underfunded,” Riviere said. “That is no reason to shut down an airfield. The DOT feels that subsidy to run the airfield is too much, but I would counter that I think with better management, more aggressive and assertive and positive management of the airfield, we could work through any issues they might have.”
The FAA meanwhile has told the state in writing that federal grants they gave the state make the DOT obligated to stay at least through 2025. The FAA says they want civilian access maintained and warns the state against discriminating based on kinds of airport activities.
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