Blue Skies Ahead for Skydiving at Hawaii’s Kawaihapai (Dillingham) Airfield
Wednesday, September 22, 2021
Photos courtesy of Patrick Kessler and Lindsay Wheeler.
On September 17, the Hawaii Department of Transportation (HDOT)-Airports Division formally revoked its intent to terminate the lease for Kawaihapai (Dillingham) Airfield, giving tenants and businesses at least three more years as the U.S. Army and HDOT work to finalize a joint-use agreement and long-term lease. The airfield—located on Oahu’s North Shore—is a special place, with steady trade winds, open landing areas and consistently clear weather. If the airfield had closed, there would no longer have been a place for skydiving, glider piloting, general aviation, Civil Air Patrol operations and air-sports programs such as the Young Eagles, which offers a head start to youth in aviation and pilot training, in Hawaii. There are currently 11 businesses operating at Dillingham Airfield, employing more than 130 people.
Following a year and a half of meetings, advocacy and problem solving, love and passion for general aviation and skydiving prevailed on the island of Oahu. USPA Executive Director Albert Berchtold said, “At USPA, it’s our mission to ensure continued rightful access to this incredible sport we love while supporting safe skydiving and all those who enjoy it. Skydivers know that we who share the air are family and, more than anything, that feeling and connection is what saved Dillingham Airfield.” He went on to say, “We’re thrilled that the Hawaii DOT is supporting general aviation in Hawaii, and we look forward to a long and prosperous relationship with them and with the Army.”
One of the crown jewels of the global tourism industry, Dillingham Airfield is the only airport on Oahu that can accommodate skydiving and is the only suitable airport in Hawaii for large-scale skydiving businesses. More than 50,000 tourists and local patrons visited Dillingham Airfield in 2019 for recreational skydiving, and they and their families often frequented North Shore restaurants, retail outlets, parks and beaches in the area.
HDOT currently manages the airfield and leases the land from the military, and in January 2020 gave notice that it would terminate its lease effective June 30, 2020. After the efforts of USPA and others, HDOT subsequently postponed the intended lease termination to June 30, 2021, and then again to December 31, 2021—leaving tenants and business anxious for a definitive decision.
In a letter sent to the U.S. Army on September 17, that decision came: HDOT revoked its scheduled lease termination. The new termination date of the lease is now the original date of July 5, 2024.
Much of this success is due to the efforts of USPA member and FAA Senior Rigger Ben Devine, who marched to work when he heard of the impending closure. He dedicated all his free time to solving the issues presented, assembling representatives from aviation-related groups (including the influential Airline Owners and Pilots Association and the National Business Aviation Association, among many others) and acting as a liaison between a working group of airfield advocates and Hawaii legislators. Devine and AOPA Western Pacific Regional Manager Melissa McCaffrey worked in concert with former USPA Executive Director Ed Scott and former Director of Government Relations Randy Ottinger to raise awareness of the effects of a closure. A USPA documentary, “Save Our Sky,” showcased the personal stories of Dillingham Airfield’s skydivers, who shared what would be lost with the closure. It was with this film that USPA called members, aviators and residents to action, ultimately resulting in 2,691 personal letters written to the Hawaii legislature. “The interviews and documentary were an absolutely essential communication tool that brought the issues to the attention of the wider community,” said Devine. As focus on the issue grew, so did public outcry.
AOPA hosted a virtual legislative webinar to instruct individuals on advocacy methods. The webinar resulted in establishing an HDH Advocacy A-Team (named for the airfield’s airport code) consisting of more than 450 participants, who, as McCaffrey said, “want to actively engage and assist our team and support legislation to save the airfield.” Even the Federal Aviation Administration showed its support and encouraged HDOT not to move forward with the proposed lease termination without a viable plan to relocate current airport tenants, reminding officials that relocating tenants would be a requirement of the federal-grant obligations the state had accepted.
Airport advocates were also fortunate to have the support of State Senator Gil Riviere and State Representatives Lauren Motsumoto and Sean Quinlan, who realized what Dillingham meant to their constituents. After the news broke, Riviere said in a Facebook comment, “We will continue to work collaboratively with all parties to negotiate a new long-term lease …” He went on to say, “We are not done yet, but the future is looking a lot brighter today. Blue skies ahead.”
The working group worked persistently and patiently to bring the threat of Dillingham’s closure to the attention of residents, tourists and anyone who has dreamed of flight at one of the most beautiful airfields in the world. “USPA had lots of help saving that special piece of sky over Dillingham,” said Scott. “When skydivers join together, the sky is truly limitless.”