Dillingham Airfield tenants — including skydiving, glider and ultralight operators — are hoping a white knight will step forward to prevent the North Shore airport from shutting down civilian operations June 30.
All Dillingham Airfield businesses are on 30-day
revocable permits and are expected to receive official notices in the next few days saying the state is terminating its lease for the Army-
owned airfield as of June 30.
The Army, meanwhile, said it isn’t inclined to get into the general aviation business at Dillingham with the departure of the Department of Transportation Airports Division.
“If the Dillingham lease is ended with the state, all for-profit commercial activity there would likely cease as the Army’s primary mission is soldier readiness to deploy, fight and win our nation’s wars,” U.S. Army Hawaii said in a statement late last week.
But all is not lost for the North Shore airport where one business operator said about 40,000 tandem skydiving jumps occur each year.
“At this time, the Army wants to work with government entities to keep the airfield open,” said Frank Hinshaw, founder and president of Skydive Hawaii.
The state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources “might be a partner,” as DLNR took over small boat harbors from DOT, Hinshaw said in an email. The Pearl Harbor Morale, Welfare and Recreation office has expressed interest, Hinshaw said.
A town hall meeting with several elected leaders is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. tonight at Waialua Elementary School. Airfield tenants are expected to attend.
Hinshaw said Dillingham Airfield businesses contribute $12 to $13 million annually to the North Shore economy and that some 125 families depend on aviation-related employment there.
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. But DOT decided instead to terminate the lease early — and on short notice. Word trickled out last week even though DOT hadn’t notified airport tenants.
State Sen. Gil Riviere, whose district includes the airfield, said last week he would appeal to Gov. David Ige to intercede and reverse the DOT decision or at least use a longer-term phase-out of general aviation beyond June 30.
Riviere called the DOT decision and timeline a “tragedy” for people “getting knocked out of their livelihood” by the state agency.
Linda Chu Takayama, Ige’s chief of staff, put out a statement Friday saying the state “does not have much of a choice in this matter” because terms for the lease of Dillingham Airfield “are in conflict” with Federal Aviation Administration rules.
“However, we continue our discussions with all stakeholders and aim to find the solution that is best for the state and our community,” she said.
Asked for clarification on the first part, Tim Sakahara, a DOT spokesman, said the conflict comes in part from the state’s inability to secure a long-term lease from the Army and need to maintain a community water system.
DOT said the Army and state in 1983 negotiated a
25-year lease that ended in 2008. In 2009 a lease was negotiated to 2034 — but that was amended to five-year increments, the last of which ends in 2024.
For the airport businesses, “permit terms of five years cannot qualify them for significant loans (financing) for major airport development such as hangars, business buildings/offices or other airport infrastructure improvements,” DOT said in a release.
For the state Department of Transportation Airports Division, the inability to establish long-term leases longer than 20 years “directly affects the HDOTA’s eligibility as an airport sponsor, to apply (for)/receive any airport improvement program grants,” the agency said.
Tom Sanders, owner of Paradise Air Hawaii, which has three powered hang gliders at Dillingham, said in an email to Riviere that DOT Airports has “truly tried to ignore” Dillingham Airfield.
Partway into one long-term lease, the Army came out and inspected the airfield and was not happy. “There were many problems like buildings that had no permits, etc.,” Sanders said. A five-year lease was then required by the Army, he said.
The Airports Division “did not deserve a long-term contract, in the Army’s opinion, and I must agree,” Sanders said, adding that all tenants have suffered because DOT Airports did not force a few bad apples to follow the rules.
Sanders said both Pacific Skydiving and Skydive Hawaii “are among the most successful and safest skydiving operations in the world. Both have state-of-the-art, multimillion-dollar turbine aircraft and excellent maintenance.”
The DOT said it is also saddled with a water system that it must maintain for the airfield and the surrounding civilian/public community — with the FAA warning that DOT Airports’ role with the water system “is not allowed.”
DOT Director Jade Butay said the Airports Division “subsidizes” airport operations and maintenance to the tune of $1 million a year.
Riviere said he doesn’t think DOT is taking into account the airport’s economic stimulus.
“In other words, I don’t believe the state is losing a million, even if on the books for DOT it’s a million,” he said.
Sanders said he knows an individual with a fleet of multimillion-dollar aircraft who bought an airport in Australia for skydiving and powered hang gliders who “would love to purchase the rights to Dillingham Airfield during daylight hours.”
“There should be a solution to keep Dillingham Airfield open and the hundreds of people (employed) that rely on it for their livelihood, whether the state of Hawaii is involved or not,” he said.