Some 60 years after the state started leasing Dillingham Airfield for private use, it’s giving the airfield back to the military — leaving the future of two dozen or so North Shore aviation outfits uncertain.

The Hawaii Department of Transportation made its decision official Thursday amid rumors and news reports that it planned to end its latest, five-year lease with the U.S. Army about four years early. The state will relinquish the lease at the end of June. DOT says its decision is final.

Army officials, meanwhile, say they’re not yet sure what’s going to happen with the airfield and that they’ve only just begun to consider the path forward.

Whatever that path involves, it will likely impact hundreds of workers, including personnel at the airfield and outside businesses that rely on its operations indirectly.

Dillingham airfield
Tandem skydivers soar over Dillingham Airfield. The future of such flights and operations remains unclear now that the state Department of Transportation says it will end its lease in June. Mark Ture/Flickr

DOT said in a statement Thursday that it’s been unable to secure the longer-term lease it needs from the Army to stay at Dillingham. Furthermore, private airfield operations must defer to Army exercises there, and the state needs to get Army approval for any improvements.

DOT spokesman Tim Sakahara stressed that the DOT subsidizes operations at an airfield that it doesn’t own by about $1 million a year. The state agency also must run the water system that supplies the airfield and surrounding area, even though the Federal Aviation Administration has warned that’s not allowed, according to DOT.

Still, the decision, of which DOT said it notified the FAA in December, could significantly affect the aviation landscape on Oahu.

“There is no option on Oahu for all of the Glider businesses to re-locate. This will affect pilots, aircraft mechanics, their office staff, reservations and personnel at the airport that deal with the customers and their entire families,” a petition urging Gov. David Ige to keep the airfield open for public use stated.

The petition was created Jan. 31. As of Thursday evening it had more than 6,700 signatures on its 7,500-signature goal.

Company officials with Skydive Hawaii and Paradise Skydiving Center weren’t available for comment late Thursday when the news broke.

Waialua and Mokuleia with Kaena Point, on right side of photograph.
Waialua and Mokuleia on the North Shore, where Dillingham Airfield is located. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

DOT has not yet directly reached out to the airfield’s tenants, according to Sakahara.

The agency had hoped to notify tenants via letter before going public, but “things in this case happened a little bit out of order,” Sakahara said, referring to the news reports earlier this week.

In any case, the petition indicates that airfield tenants heard in advance of DOT’s plans to pull out.

The decision to leave “is separate” from the Oahu Parachute Company plane crash at the airfield that killed 11 people in June, Sakahara said. The crash was the country’s worst civilian aviation accident in eight years, and it remains under investigation.

Sakahara added, however, that “general liability is always a factor at any of the facilities that the department manages.”

A statement from the Army on Thursday indicated that it was surprised when DOT officially shared its plans on Jan. 23.

The Army had been working with the state on a long-term lease for the past year when DOT informed them that it planned to end the lease early and leave the airfield by June 30, it stated.

DOT, meanwhile, said it had been trying for the past eight years to secure a lease of 20 years or longer. That’s the minimum length to qualify for federal dollars to fund improvements at the airfield, according to the agency statement.

DOT has leased the airfield from the Army since 1972. It leased it from the Air Force for about a decade prior to that, officials said.

State Sen. Gil Riviere, who represents the North Shore, said the DOT should reconsider the move. The airfield could be managed better to generate more revenue and reduce the annual subsidy, he said.

“They’ve allowed it to get to the condition it is with their lack of management and now they want to walk away. It’s just not right,” Riviere said.

At the very least, he added, the agency should give more of a transition period.

“It’s too quick. They’re destroying livelihoods,” Riviere said. “I just think this is a catastrophe.”

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