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Popular Hawaii airport gets extended lease on civil life

The latest reprieve buys much more time—years rather than months—to sort out a plan for the popular airport’s future.

AOPA rallied support for Dillingham Airfield (also known as Kawaihāpai Airfield) soon after the Hawaii DOT confirmed to AOPA in April 2020 that it would move to terminate its lease of the airport property from the U.S. Army ahead of that agreement’s 2024 end date. The state ordered tenants to vacate the airport long used for flight training, skydiving, sightseeing, and glider operations, putting businesses and tourism resources at risk.

AOPA Western Pacific Regional Manager Melissa McCaffrey led the association’s “advocacy A-team” effort to enlist local support, helping build a multi-front, grassroots campaign that garnered support among lawmakers and was joined by more than 450 individuals, earning local media coverage of the issue. Among those supporters, U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele (D-Hawaii) urged Gov. David Ige to maintain civilian use of the airfield in a March 3 letter.

Kahele praised the DOT decision (announced in a September 17 letter) to revoke its intent of early termination of the land lease in a statement quoted in local media coverage of the development:

“The Hawai’i DOT’s decision to revoke its notice of early termination of its lease with the Army allows for much needed continued dialogue about the future of Kawaihāpai (Dillingham) Airfield. Since taking office, my staff and I have made a concerted effort to find long-term solutions for the ongoing maintenance and operations to maximize the potential of Kawaihāpai,” Kahele said. “The Airfield is a critical economic driver for the North Shore and serves as an educational epicenter for aspiring local pilots as well as the general aviation, and skydiving communities.”

State lawmakers also joined the preservation push, crafting a bill that earned strong support from AOPA that McCaffrey expressed in testimony provided in February, making a case for continued civilian use of an airport that provides $12.6 million in direct economic benefit and draws about 50,000 visitors a year while employing 130 people at 11 airport-based businesses.

The FAA also urged the state to reconsider evicting Dillingham Airfield tenants in a February 1 letter to state airport officials, calling on the state to postpone the then-planned July 30 lease termination and reminding the state of its federal grant obligations. AOPA worked closely with state Sen. Gil Riviere (D-District 23) and state Rep. Lauren Matsumoto (R-District 45), the United States Parachute Association, as well as leaders of the local advocacy group Save Dillingham Airfield to persuade the DOT to extend Dillingham’s use as a civilian airfield. The growing group of supporters was disappointed when the June 30 lease termination was extended only until December, but kept the pressure on for more time to develop a sustainable long-term solution.

According to McCaffrey, “This reprieve from early termination of the lease at Dillingham (Kawaihapai) Airfield gives the stakeholders an excellent opportunity to find solutions to the existing problems, and more importantly, opens the door to set the foundation for a vibrant and growing GA community for years to come.”

Dillingham Airfield has military roots, having been called Mokuleia Airstrip when built by the U.S. Army a decade before the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, when a few pilots from the North Shore airfield were able to launch and confront the assault. The runway was later extended, and the airfield was renamed Dillingham Air Force Base in 1948 in honor of Capt. Henry Dillingham, a B–29 pilot who was killed in action during World War II.

With more than 300 flyable days a year, Dillingham proved an ideal spot for soaring and sightseeing, with nearby mountains that offer hiking and unbeatable scenery.

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