The state Department of Transportation said today that operating Dillingham Airfield “is not in the best interest of the state of Hawaii” and is transferring it back to the Army.
The Hawaii Department of Transportation Airports Division has notified the Army and the Federal Aviation Administration “that it is exercising its right to terminate the Army lease effective June 30, 2020,” the state agency said.
State Sen. Gil Riviere, whose district includes Mokuleia, Waialua and Haleiwa, called the decision a “tragedy for the hundreds of people that are getting knocked out of their livelihood” at the civilian-use airport popular with skydivers and used for glider and ultralight operations.
“It’s going to be devastating for the hundreds of people who now are not going to have a livelihood due to this decision. I’m just calling on the governor to reconsider and allow at least a phase-down,” Riviere said. “The least they can do is have some sort of rational phase-down to allow either a new entity to take over — whether it’s a nonprofit or some sort of a cooperative.”
“But if they shut this down as they are doing now, they are going to wipe everybody out. There will be no businesses to survive,” he added.
The Department of Transportation said it made the decision after “careful consideration.”
“Dillingham Airfield is the only airport in the HDOTA system that is not owned by the state and it is in the best interest of the state to transfer the airfield back to the Army to manage and maintain,” Director Jade Butay said in a release.
Factors in that decision included the uncertainty of the lease, risk of losing federal funds, a water system maintenance issue and lack of authority over the facility, he said.
Additionally, HDOTA “subsidizes a million dollars a year for the operation and maintenance at the airfield and we will focus the resources on the remaining 14 airports in our jurisdiction,” Butay said.
Parts of the airfield — most notably the 5,000-foot runway — have been leased by the Army to the state Department of Transportation airports division since 1972, the Army said. There are 47 civilian based aircraft and over 36,000 civilian aircraft operations annually at Dillingham, according to the FAA.
In 2019, the Army and state agreed to a five-year lease extension that expires in 2024 to allow time to negotiate a longer-term lease as requested by the state, the Army said.
Three glider operations, two skydiving centers, hangars for privately owned aircraft and other aviation operations are based at Dillingham, according to business representatives.
The FAA said it provided airport improvement program funding to the state in 2003 and 2005 to extend the taxiway at Dillingham.
“We made that investment expecting a minimum useful life of 20 years” and the state DOT is “obligated to ensure that those improvements and the airport are available for civilian use at least through 2025 in order to comply with its federal obligations,” the FAA said.
The FAA said “we strongly encourage” the DOT and Army “to reach an agreement for the continued operation and civilian use” of Dillingham Airfield.
The Army said it had been working with the state on a long-term lease for the past year, but on Jan. 23 it received a letter from the DOT announcing the state’s intent to exercise its right to terminate the lease early.
An online petition at change.org was started about a week ago to “keep Dillingham Airfield open for public use.” The petition had generated over 6,000 signatures as of Wednesday.
The petition started by skydiver Edward Cope says there is no other option on Oahu for the two skydiving centers and glider businesses. Honolulu Soaring has been operating at Dillingham for 50 years.
“None of the other airports’ airspace permit skydiving, not even Kalaeloa (Airport),” according to the petition. “This will affect perhaps hundreds of people between the two companies.” That list includes pilots, aircraft mechanics, parachute riggers, office staff, reservation staff, drivers and editors that produce customer videos.
Three flight schools are based there. The petition also notes that “thousands of visitors and residents” use the Kealia hiking trail behind the airfield and use the facility’s parking lot and bathrooms.
The airfield is jointly used with the Army having priority for helicopter and infantry operations on the 650-acre Dillingham Military Reservation. The state leased Dillingham from the Air Force in 1962 for general aviation, with the Air Force transferring the base to the Army in about 1974, according to a state website.
“Future improvements and initiatives” were to include a new 35-year lease from the Army and joint-use agreement, taxiway extension, water system upgrade and additional hangars, the state report said.
A business operator said a “thorn in the side of the state” has been a water system that has to be maintained that services nearby Camp Erdman and a beach park, requiring costly maintenance.