Saving Dillingham
Features | Feb 01, 2021
Saving Dillingham

Luke Jones

Each year, roughly 55,000 Oahu locals and tourists visit Dillingham Airfield to skydive, glide and fly. The Hawaiian haven for aviation, operating on the state’s most populous island, is home to two drop zones—Skydive Hawaii and Pacific Skydiving—as well as eight other civilian-aviation-based businesses. This past year has not been an easy one for skydivers and drop zones worldwide, but it has been especially challenging for those at Dillingham. With the lease between the U.S. Army and the Hawaii Department of Transportation currently scheduled for termination on June 30, 2021, those businesses, their employees and hundreds of skydivers effectively face an eviction from their home.

USPA, along with several other organizations, has spent the last year opposing that outcome. The benefits that Dillingham offers the skydiving community, as well as the economies of Oahu and the state of Hawaii, are undeniable. One thing is clear: It’s an airfield worth fighting for. Over the next few months, USPA will continue to do so. We encourage every skydiver and pilot, as well as anyone else who loves the sky, to visit savedillinghamairfield.org to learn more about what you can do to help.

 

Dillingham Field, a general aviation airport which has been home to civilian skydiving activities since the 1960s, is a joint-use airfield owned by the U.S. Army and leased to the Hawaii Department of Transportation. That lease has historically been a long-term one, between 15 and 25 years in length.  The stability offered by those lease agreements has made Dillingham an attractive business location, as well as a worthy recipient of Federal Aviation Administration grants. As recently as 2005, the FAA provided funding to Dillingham through its Airport Improvement Program.

In 2009, HDOT and the Army signed the most recent long-term lease. The 25-year agreement should have solidified Dillingham as a hub for civilian aviation through July 2034, but in 2012 it was amended into a five-year lease, retroactive to 2009 and ending in 2014. The U.S. Army made this change, but not in an attempt to target Dillingham; it was a sweeping change made to joint-use airfields nationwide, and Oahu’s North Shore happens to be the home of Hawaii’s only airport not owned outright by HDOT.

Over the next several years, a series of short-term renewals preserved the agreement between the Army and HDOT, and in 2019 they signed a new five-year lease. The businesses at Dillingham continued to thrive: The yearly $1 million state government investment in the airfield is estimated to return $12 million to the Hawaii economy—almost double the statewide rate of return on investments in infrastructure. In a state whose largest single source of capital—more than 20 percent of the economy—is tourism, the 132 civilian aviation staff at Dillingham are a proven asset to Oahu and the state of Hawaii. In addition, the airfield’s 9,000-foot runway and location away from congested Honolulu airspace have made it an optimal location for aviation programs statewide—particularly pilot training.

Though the Army pushed the new five-year standard, it had repeatedly stated its intent to make a special exemption for Dillingham that would open up the possibility of another long-term lease. In fact, within the 2015 lease, both parties maintained there was “a stated intent to enter into a new 50-year lease.” While that didn’t materialize then, the 2019 agreement continued to include such language, saying, “It is the intent of both parties in the future to negotiate and enter into a new longer-term lease.” It was therefore a surprise to many in Hawaii and the worldwide aviation community when, in February 2020, HDOT announced its intention to terminate the Dillingham lease, which it had renewed less than a year beforehand. Without due consideration of this explicitly stated goal, HDOT informed businesses on Dillingham that they were expected to cease all operations by June 30, 2020—giving them less than six months to close down, remove their property and vacate.

The response from USPA was immediate. In a February 2020 letter to Hawaii Governor David Ige, then-USPA Executive Director Ed Scott pushed for a postponement of the termination date, as well as an economic-impact study, in order to assess the costs and benefits of continuing to operate the airport. “Rather than giving up on the challenge of making the airport viable,” said Scott in the letter, “the State of Hawaii should explore multiple options to keep the airport open to civil operations and businesses.”

HDOT is also subject to federal grant obligations. Having received FAA funding for improving Dillingham, HDOT was—and still is—required to “make the airport available … for public use … without unjust discrimination to all types, kinds, and classes of aeronautical activity.” On March 2, Scott wrote to Mark McClardy, Director of the FAA’s Western-Pacific Region Airports Division, which oversees grant funding for Hawaii airports. Scott implored the FAA “to stand firm and not release HDOT from those grant obligations.” “The FAA should not agree to the June 30 early termination, but instead hold HDOT firmly to the end of its current grant obligation,” said Scott.

On March 31, 2020, the FAA formally wrote to HDOT and insisted that it provide a proposal for its intended action with Dillingham. With the proposal, the FAA asked that HDOT provide “reasoning and justification for requesting a release from their federal grant requirements” and a “relocation plan that would accommodate all civil aviation tenants.”  While HDOT did not respond directly to the FAA, on April 8, HDOT did postpone the lease’s termination, moving it from June 30, 2020 to June 30, 2021, due to COVID-19. As of January 2021, HDOT still has not provided the FAA-requested proposal.

The primary concerns cited by HDOT as reasons for terminating the lease—the maintenance of the airfield’s water system, its inability to exercise HDOT powers as lessees of the U.S. Army and the fact that Dillingham is the only property operated by HDOT’s Airports Division, which it does not own—are ones that have solutions. It would make sense, then, to provide those involved with the necessary time to address these concerns. Instead, HDOT chose to exercise its power to terminate the lease with short notice—a power newly given in the 2019 lease agreement.

By the time this February 2021 issue of Parachutist reaches readers, a bill—sponsored by Hawaii State Senator Gil Riviere and Hawaii State Representatives Lauren Matsumoto and Sean Quinlan—that intends to establish a Dillingham airport commission totally separate from HDOT is scheduled to have reached committee. Such governing bodies exist in 48 of 50 states, the only current exceptions being Alaska and Hawaii. This airport commission would be able to act as a sponsor for Dillingham Airfield and negotiate directly with the U.S. Army, and would continue seeking a long-term lease for the airfield under a reasonable timeline. Dillingham would continue to benefit skydivers, the world of aviation and the economy of Hawaii.

As recently as September 8, 2020, HDOT has reinforced its commitment to ceasing civilian operations at the airfield this June. Those with aircraft parking permits were referred to other airports, some on the islands of Maui, Lanai or Molokai, as though all that was needed was a quick stroll—or swim—to a new tie-down space.

Dillingham cannot be packed up into boxes and conveniently relocated. There’s no other location on Oahu for skydiving and other air sport activities. The trade winds blowing across Oahu’s North Shore ridgeline uniquely suit the multiple gliding businesses, and the unrestricted airspace is open and free to jumpers. Pilot training programs don’t take place at Dillingham by chance—the location and facilities there have solidified the airfield as a resource to civil aviation for more than half a century. That shouldn’t end now, especially when the problems we face are approachable and solvable by a governing body actually interested in doing so.

The fight for Dillingham continues to be a challenging one, but it’s one that can be won. As the June 30, 2021, date inches closer, USPA will continue working to help the drop zones on Oahu, the skydivers that call it home and all of us who know that there’s nothing more worth fighting for than a beautiful piece of sky.

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