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Concerns remain as crews pull Navy plane out of Kaneohe Bay

A P-8A Poseidon flies in the Indo-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Bryan Niegel/Released)

After the P-8A is back on land, divers with the state Department of Land and Natural resources will be able to document any damage.

Thirteen days after a Navy P-8A Poseidon slid off the runway in rainy weather while trying to land at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, the Navy, Marines and civilian contractors spent Saturday floating the plane and pulling it backward onto the base runway.

The recovery operation began at 6 :30 a.m. and progressed slowly and methodically. By sundown, most of the 130-foot-long P-8A was on the runway while the front portion continued to float on “roller bags ” that lifted the 60-ton warplane from two points of contact with the coral reef.

The Navy had planned to spend no more than 16 hours bringing the Poseidon ashore to ensure the operation would occur during daylight and because the work was expected to be exhaustive. Navy officials estimate that it will cost $1.5 million to salvage the plane.

“The conditions have been ideal and the operation is progressing exactly as planned, ” Rear Adm. Kevin P. Lenox, the salvage operation’s on-scene commander, said in a statement at midafternoon Saturday. “This morning we floated the aircraft and moved it towards land. As of early afternoon we have begun the stage where we pull the aircraft out of the water and onto the runway. Throughout the process, divers in the water have maintained close observation of the aircraft to ensure no further contact with coral or the sea bottom.”

After skidding off the runway while trying to land from the makai side of the base Nov. 20, the plane ended up 100 feet off the mauka end of the runway in waters no deeper than 30 feet, with the front landing gear coming to rest in a pocket of coral and the left engine sitting on other parts of the reef.

But last week’s storm caused the front landing gear to rotate about 30 degrees inside the coral pocket, leading to fears that the shift damaged more sections of reef.

After the P-8A is back on land, divers with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources will be able to document any damage.

U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda grew up in Kaneohe, where she lives with her husband and two school-age boys. She told the Honolulu Star-­Advertiser on Saturday that the military cannot do enough testing to measure water quality and document any harm to Kaneohe Bay’s marine life, including how a sea turtle in the area ended up discovered dead on Friday.

“We have to recognize that there was a plane in our bay, ” Tokuda said. “This is not a normal condition. As a result we’re going to have to look at potential impacts on the bay for marine life, for water quality.”

As for what killed the sea turtle, she said “we cannot rule out anything.”

“The real work begins after we get the Poseidon out of the water, ” Tokuda said. “As I’ve said, you can’t test enough, you can’t evaluate this enough. Water quality for the bay is absolutely critical. Assessing damage and repairing damage to the coral, that’s going to be the big work ahead.”

Kaneohe Bay serves as a source of marine food for numerous families and has a rich cultural history. The base also was a military target during the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941, that launched America into World War II.

Donald Sakamoto was born and raised in Kaneohe, serves as treasurer of the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board and worked on the Marine Corps base for 21 years as a civilian product specialist in electronics at the Marine Corps exchange until 2009.

“I appreciate the marine life and I appreciate what the service men and women do to protect us, so I see it from different perspectives, ” Sakamoto told the Star-­Advertiser on Saturday. “Accidents do happen. There was a lot of rain (when the crew and plane skidded off the runway ). But they need to do whatever they can to repair the reef and protect the natural habitat.”

Fellow Kaneohe Neighborhood Board member Neil Fleitell emphasized that “it was an accident. We’ve got to cut them a break. This is our U.S. military, all of our military.”

At the same time, Fleitell said, “I want to protect all of the bay, the reef, everything. I can see the bay from the front of my house. … I’m a scuba diver. I love the bay and we need to protect the bay.”

Immediately after the P-8A and its nine-member crew missed the landing, elected officials and environmentalists began demanding transparency from the Navy and Marines in detailing any environmental damage to Kaneohe Bay—particularly following years of fuel leaks at the Navy’s Red Hill storage facility that contaminated Oahu’s drinking supply and were only recently disclosed.

But it took more than a week for the Navy and Marines to hold their first news conference on the accident.

Wayne Tanaka, executive director of the Sierra Club, grew up fishing around and on Kaneohe Bay and wants DLNR to conduct a thorough assessment of the plane’s impact on the water, marine life and coral reef—followed by “appropriate ” monetary compensation that’s costly enough so the military works to prevent a repeat of the accident.

“The Navy needs to do the right thing and provide adequate compensation to remediate the harm, ” Tanaka said. “We need to count our blessings because it could have been a lot worse—fire, toxins in the water. But there need to be consequences. It shouldn’t be on Hawaii residents to bear all of the burden of the Navy’s mistakes that may have damaged our ecosystem. I just hope the Navy does the right thing, which is what they said they wanted to.”

Civilian contractors SMIT Salvage and Center Lift on Saturday deployed inflatable roller bags beneath the plane to lift it off the reef and then roll it backward onto the runway using heavy machinery.

The P-8A crew of three pilots and six crew members assigned to the Whidbey Island, Wash.-based Patrol Squadron 4 “Skinny Dragon ” was arriving at Marine Corps Base Hawaii around 2 p.m. Nov. 20 for “maritime homeland defense ” operations.

No one was injured when the plane failed to land and ended up in the water.

The plane’s presence in the bay caused fixed-wing takeoffs and landings to shut down out of concern their exhaust blasts could cause the P-8A to shift in the water and cause further environmental damage.

A replacement crew and plane later landed at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam to fill in for the crew that skidded into Kaneohe Bay.

The Navy planned to conduct an off-the-record safety investigation designed to prevent similar mishaps, followed by an official accident investigation that could have disciplinary and legal implications.

None of the information uncovered in the safety investigation can be used in the formal investigation into the cause of the mishap, Lenox previously said.


(c) 2023 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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