State to step away from Dillingham Airfield, transfer property back to U.S. Army

Updated: Feb. 8, 2020 at 11:49 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The state Department of Transportation plans to stop operating the Dillingham Airfield and will transfer control of the North Shore property back to the U.S. Army, state officials said late Thursday afternoon.

In a press release, the state said that continuing to run the airfield in Mokuleia ― which currently houses commercial operators that provide glider rides, skydiving flights and pilot training classes ― was “not in the best interest of the State of Hawaii.”

“Dillingham Airfield is the only airport in the (Hawaii Department of Transportation Airports Division) system that is not owned by the State and it is in the best interest of the State to transfer the airfield back to the Army," said Jade Butay, the director of the state Department of Transportation.

The state’s five-year lease with the Army to operate the airfield was extended less than a year ago, and was supposed to run until 2024.

And the stated purpose of that five-year extension, Army officials said Thursday evening, was to provide enough time to negotiate a long-term lease ― something that the state, not the Army, had requested.

“The U.S. Army has been working with the State on such a lease for the past year,” an Army spokesperson said. “However, the U.S. Army recently received a letter from the Hawaii Department of Transportation announcing the State’s intent to exercise its right to terminate the lease early and vacate Dillingham Airfield.”

Instead of continuing those negotiations, the state’s lease will be terminated on June 30.

The termination of the state’s lease does not necessarily mean that commercial operations at the airfield will end, though the decision certainly puts the future of such operations in jeopardy.

The exact number of businesses and employees that would be impacted by the airfield’s potential closure was not immediately available.

Bill Star, owner of Honolulu Soaring, has been out there for 50 years.

He remains hopeful they can work together and figure it out.

“It’s not unheard of for military installations to have civilian businesses on the premise," said Star. "We have five months now to do this. It is a doable thing. But cooler heads must prevail.”

In addition to issues involving federal revenue and the water system at the airport, state officials said they planned on diverting the $1M it spends annually on the Dillingham Airfield toward maintaining the state’s 14 other airports.

News of the closure appears to have been an abrupt about-face for the state, which told Hawaii News Now on Wednesday that speculation about the airfield’s fate was simply “rumors.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation also told Hawaii News Now that they had no plans to close down the field ― and that any closure decision would have to come from the Army.

Thousands of people had signed an online petition to prevent the facility’s closure, and as recently as Wednesday afternoon, state Sen. Gil Riviere ― whose district includes the airfield ― said he was working with the governor to keep the airfield open.

“Well, it’s an important recreational area,” said Riviere. “You’ve got general aviation out there. You’ve got hundreds of people working. There’s hundreds of people who would be out of work. That’s unfathomable to me.”

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