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2 dead in US Army-owned Dillingham Airfield plane crash

Plane wreckage at Dillingham Airfield (Jennifer Boyer/Flickr)

Two men died Saturday after a single-engine Cessna Ector 305A crashed about 200 yards from the Dillingham Airfield, the site of a horrendous skydiving crash in June that killed all 11 on board.

The Cessna, which is owned by the Honolulu Soaring Club and was manufactured in 1979, crashed under unknown circumstances soon after taking off at about 9:15 a.m.

The single-engine Cessna 305A came to rest upside down, said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor.

“The FAA and NTSB will investigate,” Gregor said in a statement.

Even before Saturday’s deadly crash, the future of Dillingham Airfield was in doubt. The state Department of Transportation, which operates the airfield under a lease with the U.S. Army, informed the Army in January that it wants to cut the lease short and transfer the airfield back to Army control on July 1. If the Army takes over, it is unlikely the airfield would continue to be used for commercial operations. Several businesses that operate at the airfield, including skydiving and glider companies, have objected to the potential shut down.

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Over two dozen emergency personnel were investigating the scene of the crash Saturday afternoon. The plane had landed in tall grass, obscuring all but two end parts of the plane.

“This is obviously a tragic incident,” said DOT spokesman Timothy Sakahara. “The focus right now is in the incident itself, focusing on the response and recovery.”

Sakahara said the field where the plane landed is known as the “Boondocks” and owned by the U.S. Army. He said some military training takes place there.

Sakahara said federal investigators are scheduled to be at the crash site this morning around 8 a.m.

Juan Ariza, owner of AutoGyro Hawaii at Dillingham Airfield, said one of the men in the aircraft was a longtime employee of Hawaiian Airlines who Ariza called an “excellent pilot.” He did not know the other man in the plane.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser is withholding the names of the men, pending notification of next of kin.

Ariza said the flight was a routine “check out.”

“Whenever a pilot needs to be checked out because he’s going to be flying an airplane or he hasn’t flown that airplane in a couple weeks and just wants to get checked out, a person more senior usually checks you out,” he said.

Suzy Gromacki, who runs Acroflight International with her husband at Dillingham Airfield, said the men who died Saturday were “very experienced pilots.”

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz called for the closure of Dillingham Airfield. “It has become clear that Dillingham Airfield cannot continue to operate safely,” he said in a statement. “Our obligation is to keep people safe, and the only way to do that is to keep the airfield closed. I urge the FAA and HDOT to shut down the airfield until they can guarantee safety of operations at Dillingham.”

Eleven people died when their skydiving plane crashed at Dillingham Airfield in June, the deadliest civilian aircraft accident in the U.S. since a 2011 Reno Air Show crash that killed the pilot and 10 spectators.

Sen. Gil Riviere (D, Heeia-Laie-Waialua) on Saturday afternoon called Schatz’s statement on closing the airfield “irresponsible” and said the two pilots who died were “highly qualified aviators, devoted to the love of flight.”

“I am very disappointed with the statement made by Sen. Brian Schatz calling for the closure of Dillingham Airfield. It is irresponsible to make such a definitive statement about the accident and the airfield before any facts of the matter have been established,” Riviere said in a news release.

Ariza, who has a plane at Dillingham, said flying conditions can be difficult.

“When you’re flying at Dillingham Airport, the wind might say one thing, but as you climb and get altitude the wind might be different,” he said. “It’s great for skydivers but it’s horrible for normal pilots, because you have to be on your feet. … When I climb, all the time I’m always fighting the wind and the weather.”

Sakahara said weather will be looked at during the investigation.

Gov. David Ige, said in a statement, “It is with great sorrow that I express my deepest condolences to the victims’ families, friends and all of those touched by the tragic plane crash that occurred this morning near the Dillingham Airfield. We thank the witnesses and emergency responders who converged on the scene to help.”

Mayor Kirk Caldwell said in a statement, “I’m deeply saddened to hear the news of two people losing their lives in today’s crash. My heart goes out to the family and friends of the victims. Thank you to all the first responders on scene today. We are working with (the Medical Examiner’s) office to make sure family members are notified.”

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