State transportation officials warn they will have to close Dillingham Airfield if negotiations with the Army, which owns the land, are unsuccessful.

Dillingham Airfield, a popular North Shore destination for gliding, skydiving and pilot training, faces renewed threat of shutting down permanently.

In a letter last week, the state’s top transportation official told tenants of the airfield, one of the area’s key economic hubs, that his department will have to close the facility next summer if it can’t reach a deal by Dec. 31. with the U.S. Army, which owns the land there. 

Specifically, the Hawaii Department of Transportation says it needs to secure a 50-year lease with the Army in order to keep the airfield running for the approximately 25 tenants there. Those tenants include about a dozen businesses and 130 or so local employees.

HDOT also says it needs assurances from the Army that it will not have to run the water system at the airfield in Mokuleia, and that it also needs guaranteed access to that same water. Further, HDOT needs “sufficient rights and powers” to operate the airfield, also known as Kawaihapai Airfield.

Skydivers load up plane for their next jump at Dillingham Airfield.
Skydivers load up plane for their next jump at Dillingham Airfield. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020)

The issues aren’t new. The airfield previously faced the threat of an imminent shutdown in 2020 when HDOT announced plans to terminate early its latest five-year lease with the Army. However, the airfield’s tenants got a reprieve in September 2021 when HDOT reversed course and decided to keep the full lease. That lease expires in June.

But the state and the Army have spent the past two years or so trying to negotiate a solution – and they’ve made progress, according to Ben Devine, a parachute mechanic at the airfield and leader of the grassroots organization Save Dillingham Airfield. The group was established before a recent push to call the airfield by its official name, Kawaihapai.

Long-Term Leases

However, progress slowed this summer after HDOT started to press for the 50-year lease, instead of a shorter one of around 20 to 30 years, according to Devine and Rep. Amy Perruso, whose district includes the airfield.

HDOT previously said it needs a lease of at least 20 years in order to qualify for much-needed grant dollars from the Federal Aviation Administration for improvements at the airfield. 

But in a letter sent to the Army this past July, HDOT said it actually needs a 50 year lease in order to keep drawing federal dollars in subsequent years.

“To be clear, in the course of recent conversations with the Army, HDOT has entertained the idea of a lease of only 30 years,” department Director Ed Sniffen wrote to Army Col. Steven McGunegle. “However, having assessed the need for long term maintenance at Dillingham, HDOT now clarifies that a 50-year lease is a necessary term for any new lease.”

That change is what has led to the latest deadline crunch facing the airfield, according to Devine.

“Everyone wants to see the airfield succeed – the Army, DOT, industry organizations, tenants and the community,” he wrote in an email. “The problem is that the processes in place to implement these solutions take time, and we are running out of time.”

In a statement Thursday, the U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii said “the extended length of a 50-year lease exceeds our approval authority locally and must be approved at the Department of the Army level of authority.” 

“We have been working closely with the Hawaii Department of Transportation throughout the process and value their partnership as we work toward a common goal of maintaining the airfield for the collaborative use of the community and the Army,” it added.

Sniffen, in his own statement Thursday, said his department was “continuing to work with the Army to resolve legal issues and the issuing of a new Joint Use Agreement and long-term lease.”  

“If there is no measurable progress, HDOT will need to continue to work toward the orderly closure” of the airfield,” Sniffen added.

Tourist Attraction

HDOT has been managing the airfield since 1962, according to Devine. Initially, it operated under two successive 25-year leases, but in 2012 the Army determined that it didn’t have the authority to issue those longer leases and switched to leases of one to five years instead, he said.

Those short leases have also led to years of deferred maintenance at the airfield, he added.

Nonetheless, the airfield’s businesses generated more than $12 million in revenue in 2019 and attracts some 50,000 tourists annually, he said.

The airfield also saw in 2019 one of the nation’s deadliest civil aviation disasters in recent years when 11 people were killed in a skydiving plane crash there upon takeoff. The National Transportation Safety Board determined an aggressive takeoff maneuver likely caused the crash.

Businesses at the airfield say there’s no realistic alternative site for them to operate in if it shuts down. Devine called it the “only true dedicated general aviation airport in Hawaii.” He added that it “offers the most affordable route to obtaining a pilot’s license” in the islands.

“If there is no measurable progress, HDOT will need to continue to work toward the orderly closure” of the airfield.”

DOT Director Ed Sniffen

Perruso said the water issues there are nearly resolved, and the solution might involve creating a cooperative water utility. Congresswoman Jill Tokuda’s office has been working with the Army to try to expedite approval of HDOT’s needs, Perruso added.

Perruso said the community discussions in recent years to help save the airfield are what led to the push to call it by its proper name.

Much of that effort was led by prominent Mokuleia resident Thomas Shirai, who died earlier this year. Shirai’s family lived at Kawaihapai until the military took the land for the airfield in the 1940s. “There’s a rich deep Hawiian culture and legacy on that aina,” or land, he told Civil Beat in 2021.

Perruso added that she’s “cautiously optimistic” the airfield can be saved. Devine said he’s also hopeful. 

“It’s looking like it could be done by the end of the year,” he said Thursday. “ But it’s going to be very close.”

Read Sniffen’s Nov. 9 letter to tenants here:

Read Sniffen’s letter to the Army clarifying the need for a 50-year lease here:

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