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Naval Air Museum Barbers Point files suit to stay in business

A U.S. Navy Grumman TBM-3U Avenger (BuNo 69400) of utility squadron VU-7A at Naval Air Station Barbers Point, Hawaii (U.S. Navy/WikiCommons)

The nonprofit Naval Air Museum Barbers Point, which maintains that it is being wrongfully evicted by state airport officials over a convoluted contract history, has filed a lawsuit claiming it has an “implied agreement” with the state to occupy certain space at what is now known as Kalaeloa Airport.

“The naval air museum has occupied its space designated by the state in reliance on the state’s implied agreement that the naval air museum could continue its occupation” as long as the museum fulfilled its obligations — which the organization maintains it has done, according to the suit filed in state Circuit Court.

But the state Department of Transportation, which locked out museum staff, said the suit has no merit, and served notice that the property has been seized or abandoned and will be disposed of.

The grassroots air museum has been closed since early November by the state eviction effort.

The question is what will happen to the aircraft if the eviction is made permanent. The museum would like to continue to operate at the airport.

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Department of Transportation spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige said in an email last week, “Museum staff can coordinate with the airport staff … to remove said aircraft and equipment, but may not access the area for maintenance.”

Relocating aircraft may be easier said than done.

Among the museum’s collection are a lot of big, heavy and not very mobile exhibit pieces, including a DC-8 passenger jet, a Coast Guard C-130H Hercules, two Navy P-3 Orion sub hunters, three A-4E Skyhawks, an F-4N Phantom and multiple Navy and Marine Corps helicopters and military vehicles, including 60-ton M-60 Patton tanks.

Museum Director Brad Hayes said about 12 aircraft are owned by the Defense Department and on loan to the museum. One of the P-3 Orions, the Phantom and three Skyhawks were moved a short distance to become the first aircraft of the museum with the closing of Naval Air Station Barbers Point in 1999.

In 1998, according to the lawsuit, the museum applied to the National Museum of Naval Aviation to be qualified as a borrower of Navy, Marine or Coast Guard aircraft and artifacts. The museum opened in 1999.

“We have reached out to federal interests regarding possible ownership of aircraft and equipment,” Kuni­shige said. “We will work with them regarding removal of federal items.”

Hayes said the DOT Airports Division sent letters to local military units on Oahu that have no involvement or interest in the vintage airplanes, tanks and trucks. “It’s not local units that have (control over) the assets,” he said.

Hayes is not really sure what will happen if he loses the lawsuit. Some exhibit items possibly could transfer to other museums. The state, however, could end up footing the bill if scrapping is necessary.

“We don’t have the money for something like that,” Hayes said.

Kunishige clarified that “at this time there is no solicitation to remove aircraft from Kalaeloa Airport.”

In the meantime, Hayes hopes an injunction can be obtained to halt the disposal process and regain access to prevent theft and perform maintenance.

Clocks, altimeters and airspeed indicators already have been pilfered out of aircraft including a Huey helicopter, he said. Airplane tires lose air and can crack.

State DOT said the air museum had a 30-day revocable permit since 2000 to use a 901-square-foot building and an area of 1,522 square feet of tarmac. The museum ended up occupying 3.9 acres of tarmac, officials said.

Naval Air Museum Barbers Point had been “provided multiple opportunities to correct the unauthorized use of land outside its permitted area, and it has failed to comply,” DOT spokesman Tim Sakahara said in November.

The lawsuit says that in 2001 the state gave the museum a permit to use 41,488 square feet to display aircraft and conduct tours.

In 2011 the state canceled the permit so it could dig water and sewer lines. The naval air museum said it was assured that it would be given another revocable permit after the work was done and inquired about obtaining it and another permit, but the state did not make them available, according to the suit.

After the utility work was done in 2013, the state allowed the museum to operate for the next six years without the permitting issue resolved, the filing states.

The lawsuit says the air museum is an “integral part” of Kalaeloa Airport operations, providing volunteer services to the state including removing 54 smaller aircraft over the years that malfunctioned on the runway.

Hayes said the Hawaii Air National Guard has responsibility for removing large disabled aircraft and trains each year with museum aircraft using large airbags and jacks instead of transporting personnel and equipment to the mainland to do so.

A GoFundMe page organized by the museum has raised over $9,000 for legal fees.

“Our history here at the former NAS Barbers Point should never be forgotten,” the page said. Children and students should not miss out learning about veterans living and dead. “Preservation of our historical aircraft and the memories we share, preserve that mission,” the museum said.

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© 2019 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser