With unemployment in Hawaii at some of the highest levels in the country, a group of local business owners are pushing back on a state plan to end commercial operations at Oahu’s Dillingham Airfield.
Sandwiched between the craggy Waianae Mountains and a sandy stretch of beach in Mokuleia, single engine planes constantly take off and land on a two mile strip of tarmac.
Most planes flying in and out of Dillingham Airfield ferry planeloads of skydivers aloft. Others tow large, sightseeing gliders and occasionally smaller, ultralight craft also take off.
The first runway at Dillingham was built by the U.S. Army in 1941. It was home to P-40 fighter planes that responded to the attack on Pearl Harbor later that year.
After the war, the newly created State of Hawaii signed a series of leases with the Army, allowing private operators to fly out of Dillingham.
“The conditions and the environment around Dillingham are actually really unique and perfect for the operations that are there,” says Melissa McCaffrey with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a group representing private aviation interests at Dillingham.
McCaffrey says the consistent weather and natural beauty of Mokuleia have made the airfield an ideal home for tourism-focused businesses like skydiving and glider tours.
However that is set to change later this summer. The State Department of Transportation plans to end its lease with the Army in June, meaning those businesses would likely have to close.
“It would be a massive disruption to everything that’s established there, 130 jobs and 11 businesses on the field,” McCaffrey explains.
Howard Green with the North Shore Chamber of Commerce told HPR that closing Dillingham would have a ripple effect on the entire local economy of the North Shore.
“All of those people that come to the North Shore as customers go to the restaurants in Haleiwa and go to the shops in Haleiwa,” Green explained in a phone interview.
“So it does have a significant impact to our community.”
The Department of Transportation declined to be interviewed for this story. In announcing the decision last year, Director Jade Butay said operating the airfield was no longer in the best interests of the State, citing concerns over ownership of the facility and funding issues.
Multiple aviation accidents in the past two years have resulted in the deaths of 13 people, although a Department of Transportation employee told HPR on background that the deaths were not the reason for the decision to terminate the lease.
Lawmakers representing the area strongly support keeping the facility open, including newly inaugurated Congressman Kai Kahele.
“Totally opposed to the closure of Dillingham Airfield,” Kahele said shortly after being elected in November.
The former State Senator, who is also a pilot for Hawaiian Airlines and the Hawaii Air National Guard, said facilities like Dillingham provide an avenue for local kids to explore a career in aviation.
“Closing Dillingham will result in the closure of small businesses and a lack of opportunity to promote and pursue general aviation in Hawaii.”
State lawmakers representing the North Shore say they are exploring options with the Governor and Department of Transportation going into this year’s legislative session, but would not discuss those plans.
One possibility is for the Army to find a private manager to take over the lease. However, military officials have indicated that they want to work with a government agency, rather than a private company.
The creation of an independent entity to manage Hawaii’s airports has been discussed in the State Legislature for years. That is an idea that may satisfy all parties’ concerns, but has previously failed to gain traction.
If Dillingham does close, the businesses there could opt to relocate. But Melissa McCaffrey says other similar airfields, like Kalaeloa in West Oahu, are not suitable due to the crowded airspace and legal restrictions around the Honolulu Airport.
“It’s not only unfeasible, it’s unsafe. There just really isn’t a way that those operations can relocate,” McCaffrey said.
With local unemployment still sky high there will be strong political incentive to find a solution.
Find more information from the Hawaii Department of Transportation on the planned Dillingham Airfield transition here.