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State DOT extends skydiving and other civilian aviation at Dillingham Airfield

                                The Dillingham Airfield


    The Dillingham Airfield

Good news for skydivers on Oahu: The state Department of Transportation has rescinded its previously-announced Dec. 31 pullout from Dillingham Airfield — which would have ended general aviation at the popular North Shore airport.

Citing progress on a long-term lease with the U.S. Army, which is the airfield’s owner, DOT Director Jade Butay said in a letter to the Army last Friday that the termination date of the lease now is July 5, 2024.

“As you know, DOT agreed to extend the termination date to Dec. 31, 2021, based on an expectation of seeing concrete and substantial progress toward resolving outstanding legal issues concerning the lease” including the length of the lease and current obligation to operate a water system, Butay said.

He added that, “at this time, there has been some progress on a joint use agreement and a long-term lease.” DOT’s comments on draft documents are under review by the Army.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association said advocates fighting to save Dillingham Airfield, “celebrated a significant victory” with the news.

“The latest reprieve buys much more time — years rather than months — to sort out a plan for the popular airport’s future,” the group said in a release.

AOPA and local lawmakers rallied support for Dillingham Airfield — also known as Kawaihapai Airfield — soon after the Hawaii DOT confirmed in early 2020 that it would move to terminate its lease of the airport property from the U.S. Army ahead of that agreement’s 2024 end date.

“The state ordered tenants to vacate the airport long used for flight training, skydiving, sightseeing, and glider operations, putting businesses and tourism resources at risk,” AOPA said.

Civilian use of the airport — which is closed only periodically for Army training — provides $12.6 million in direct economic benefit and draws about 50,000 visitors a year while employing 130 people at 11 airport-based businesses, the aviation group said.

The DOT Airports Division had extended its lease termination date as landlord for civilian operations at Dillingham from June 30, 2020, to June 30, 2021, to Dec. 31 amid concerns that the airfield operated at a loss and with the need to operate a water system that also supplies nearby homes and other users.

State Rep. Lauren Matsumoto, whose district includes Mokuleia and Waialua as well as Mililani, said in May that she had been working for the past year on continuing Dillingham Airfield civilian operations.

“It really is a treasure of the North Shore. It’s a great economic driver, and I think that’s been even more evident this year when you talk about diversifying our economy—that it’s important to keep the various industries open, ” she said at the time

Pre-coronavirus, Pacific Skydiving and Skydive Hawaii were among the busiest operations in the world for first-time jump students and provided the bulk of the economic impact from the airfield, officials said.

The state has sought and received multiple lease renewals from the military since 1962. A couple of 25-year leases were obtained in 1983 and 2009, but the local Army realized in 2012 it did not have the authority to execute a lease beyond five years without approval from the secretary of the Army, the Airports Division said.

A series of short-term leases followed. As a result, the Airports Division said it has not been able to obtain federal grants to make improvements at the airfield.

The state said the airfield operated at a deficit of nearly $1 million in 2019, but tenants say that includes costs for an old water system that supplies the nearby Air Force satellite tracking station, among other users. No fees are collected.

Butay said in the Friday letter that “we restate DOT’s understanding that DOT will not be obligated to operate the water system outside the boundaries of the leasehold” under a new agreement with the Army.

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