Monday, June 13, 2011

Airstrip Thoughts

March 25, 2011
written by Rocky Bertsch

Rise and Fall of Quartzsite, Arizona’s Emergency Airstrip

Quartzsite’s Emergency Airstrip From the Start to the Demise as recorded by volunteer airstrip manager, Rocky Bertsch

Why are town officials so insistent upon destroying the only airstrip in the Quartzsite area? Could it be voter retribution on the part of town officials? Yes,based upon my first hand experience with the politics surrounding Quartzsite’s Emergency Airstrip.

Lets start with a short history of the Emergency Airstrip. One of the agenda items discussed and approved during the April 28, 2009 Town Council meeting was action establishing an emergency airstrip in Quartzsite. A motion was made and seconded to discuss the possibility of designating a private airstrip owned by Richard Oldham as Quartzsite’s Emergency Airstrip. The discussion among council members was in favor of approving the motion. Public input was allowed and good questions were asked. Concerns about the cost and impact such an action would place on the town were raised and addressed to the satisfaction of all those present.

The final testimony presented by me, Rocky Bertsch, to the council moved the council to amend the original motion and pass it 6 to 0 in favor with one member absent. All this occurred while I stood at the podium.

As I recall the motion and vote went like this: Motion made and seconded to designate Mr. Oldham’s private runway as Quartzsite’s official emergency airstrip. The emergency airstrip shall include the existing 1,350 feet of runway and the town will assist Mr. Oldham with his effort to gain conditional use of an additional 1,950 feet of BLM land. The BLM land would be used to extend the runway in the event an aircraft needed the extension to safely leave the area upon completion of emergency repairs.

The council also directed town manager, Alex Taft, to assist Mr. Oldham with preparing and submitting an application to the BLM for the runway extension. The very next day Mr. Oldham submitted a request to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to gain an official airstrip designator that would have placed the Quartzsite Emergency Airstrip on FAA Sectional Charts. This was an important step to inform all general aviation pilots of a safe place to land in the event of an in-flight emergency. All was well and Quartzsite once again had a safe place for aircraft to land.

Mr Oldham also stated the runway would be available to public use. This was really great news for the Light Sport Aviation and Ultralight Aircraft community in and around Western Arizona. Many of Quartzsite’s displaced pilots were willing to return to Quartzsite and utilize Mr. Oldham’s airstrip. As one of the displaced Light Sport pilots I entered into talks with Mr. Oldham to bring aviation back to this area.

Mr. Oldham was glad I was willing to oversee the daily operations at the airstrip as a volunteer. I would also assist Ms. Taft with gathering information required by the BLM for their consideration of the runway extension request. In short, I became the Airstrip Manager on a volunteer basis. Things looked great for pilots.

Ms. Alex Taft welcomed my assistance and gave me a detailed list of tasks Mr. Oldham would need to complete and provide to her. Several phone calls to La Paz county and trips to Parker were completed by Mid-June 2009 All was well and excitement was building with the anticipation of an active airstrip in the Quartzsite area for the 2009 - 2010 snowbird season.

When June 2009 arrived this full-time RVer felt the need to travel, and so, I did. But, I took my homework with me and continued to work on my plan to ready the airstrip upon my October return to Quartzsite.

Upon my Mid-October return to Quartzsite the first order of business was to check the progress town manager, Alex Taft had over the summer months. To my dismay, Ms. Taft had not yet submitted any paperwork to the BLM. Ms. Taft granted my request for a meeting to address outstanding issues causing the delay in submitting application to the BLM in Yuma. Ms. Taft stated the detailed description I provided was not adequate. A survey of the proposed runway extension would be needed. That was the last meeting I would have with Alex Taft.

All attempts to talk to Ms. Taft were met with roadblocks. Phone calls were not returned. Visits to Town Hall were disappointing. I would request to see Alex Taft only to be told she was unavailable. Messages were left each week with the town clerk requesting a phone call from Ms. Taft. My phone never rang. I was perplexed as to why I was getting the cold shoulder from Ms. Taft’s office. Unknown to me at the time was the upheaval of the October 2009 election for the Town Mayor. Town officials did not want Mr. Ed Foster to win the election. There was no clear winner and a run off election was set for March, 2010 As you read the rest of this article, remember this upcoming March election date. Then correlate the election results from both dates with the actions taken against Mr. Oldham. Why would I state this? Because Mr. Oldham openly campaigned for Mr. Ed Foster, who in March, 2010 became the new Mayor.

November was a busy month. The runway was cleaned up, rocks and loose debris removed. The surface was smoothed and packed with a heavy roller. It was time to fly. And, fly I did.

During December, January and February pilots came, stayed awhile, and had a great time. All was well.

March was remarkable with members of the women’s 99 aviation group using Quartzsite’s Emergency Airstrip as a check point for their air race. Several residents of Quartzsite were on hand to wave as each airplane made a low level high speed pass over the runway. I was asked by the organizers to log each aircraft’s ID number and report the results to their officials. To prepare for the race I contacted Public Works supervisor, Emmit, requesting help in keeping snowbirds off the runway during the race. Emmit was very cooperative and set up barricades to protect the runway from cars driving on the primitive road (future Main Street) leading to the runway. Emmit was very nice and left the barricades in place for several weeks after the race. This helped a great deal in keeping cars from driving onto an active runway.

March was also memorable for another reason. Quartzsite town officials targeted Mr. Oldham with what would become a year long vendetta. I was confused and distraught over the change in the town’s support of the Emergency Airstrip. The new attitude started about the third week of March 2010 one week after the new Mayor, Ed foster, was seated.

Early one March morning a survey crew was making noise near my RV. They stated the town retained them to survey the right-of-way for future Main Street. Ah, whaaaat? Yep, town official Al Johnson gave the order to redo a survey completed in 2004. Why? Only Town Manager, Alex Taft can provide an answer.

The town was short on funds, however, officials still felt it necessary to spend taxpayers money on a redo of a survey on a future road to nowhere. The future road, Main Street W, would at some date extend one block west of the runway and dead end at a wash. What is up with this? And why now? There is nothing North or South of the declared right-of-way that needs access at this juncture.

Mr. Oldham and I placed a phone call to Mr. Al Johnson. The above questions were asked. To our dismay it was the first indication the Quartzsite Emergency Airstrip became a target of town officials. The conversation with Mr. Johnson went downhill faster than a soapbox derby race car with a tail wind.

The comments from Al Johnson were contentious to say the least. Mr. Johnson stated there was a conflict with the Emergency Airstrip and Main Street right-of-way. When the Town Council approved the runway as Quartzsite’s Emergency Airstrip it should have been understood that the future main street extension would have terminated on the East side of the airstrip and not allowed to intersect with the runway. Any Fool should know airplanes and cars can not occupy the same space at the same time. Should this occur fatalities would surely be the end result.

The runway had been in use almost continuously since the early 1980’s Because of this long timeline tort law dealing with proscriptive easement rights should apply. Therefore, any extension of Main Street to the West of the runway should require the town of Quartzsite to construct an underpass beneath the runway, not intersect with it.

When countered by me with my knowledge and experience of the town council’s approval of the Emergency Airstrip Mr. Johnson stated the town council did not approve an emergency airstrip. He stated the town council only agreed to assist Mr. Oldham with application to the BLM for the current runway’s extension onto BLM land. When I referred him to the motion and action of the town council Mr. Johnson stated he was reading from a copy of the minutes and I was, in fact, wrong. Mr. Oldham asked if he could get a copy of the minutes he was reading. Mr. Johnson said Mr. Oldham could come to Town Hall and pick up a copy. A few more questions were asked of Mr. Johnson and a meeting was requested. Mr. Johnson agreed to a meeting 30 minutes from then. Mr. Oldham had another appointment and could not get away that quick. Mr. Oldham asked if he could send someone down right then to pick up a copy of the minutes Mr. Johnson stated he was reading from. To our surprise Mr. Johnson stated it would take him at least 30 minutes to gather up and get a copy of the minutes for Mr. Oldham. Whaaat? Ten minutes before he stated he was reading a copy of the minutes. If so, what did he have to gather and why would it take 30 minutes to copy something that was already in front of him. It seemed to me a copy was going to be fabricated to read as Mr. Johnson wanted and not what was actually stated and passed at the town council meeting with regard to the Quartzsite Emergency Airstrip.

Perplexing thoughts were on my mind as to why the change of attitude at Town Hall. Voter retribution was not one of them. However, after investigating all the political events that had taken place over the past year a picture of retribution started to form in my mind.

Over the next several months the picture became crystal clear as more and more actions from Al Johnson’s office unfolded. The vendetta unleashed by Al Johnson, Alex Taft and others against Mr. Oldham is the most egregious behavior I have ever witnessed or for that matter, ever heard of. Perhaps that is what one should expect from a man like Al Johnson sporting an email address of

Once started, Al Johnson seemed to have a specific timeline established. Approximately every two weeks Mr. Oldham would be the recipient of some new form of harassment. Within two weeks of the survey incident Mr Oldham received a letter of possible code violations. The next week Mr. Oldham received a package of about 50 photographs Al Johnson stated were code violations and was given 30 days to correct them.

Next, Al Johnson contacted La Paz county sanitation office. This action resulted in an inspection by the county of Mr. Oldham’s Main Event West property. The county required Mr. Oldham to find and uncover the septic tanks on the property so they could be inspected. They stated an anonymous complaint had been received stating septic tanks were not being used for waste disposal. For the next two weeks “Main Event West” became a prairie dog town, less the prairie dogs. Water witches used divining rods. A post-hole digger mounted to a tractor created the random prairie dog mounds everywhere the divining rods showed a positive for something. A water line became a casualty to the digger. People were left without water on 115 degree days. Al Johnson must have been grinning from ear-to-ear on his latest Power Trip. The county on the other hand was getting tired of Al Johnson’s antics and Mr. Oldham was spending a great deal of money on labor costs. In the end, two perfect condition septic tanks were uncovered, inspected and given a big OK from the county. Retribution round 2 completed.

Two weeks later came a visit from Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) accompanied by none other than Al Johnson. Seems a anonymous complaint was made concerning Mr. Oldham’s properties. I did not know Al Johnson was aka “Anonymous” and still do not know for sure. But, Anonymous was successful in getting the ADEQ to schedule and inspect said properties. There were some areas of concern, but nothing worthy of any citations. The ADEQ gave Mr. Oldham 180 days to address the areas of concern. Not good enough for Al Johnson because he has issued several citations to Mr. Oldham with disregard to the time frame set forth by ADEQ. Mr Oldham made a court appearance on the citations. The Judge found them all unwarranted and threw them out. The Judge also stated Al Johnson did not have the authority to issue criminal citations as he is not a law enforcement officer.

There is more, much more to this story of retribution, however, I will limit the rest of my story to events specific to the demise of the Emergency Airstrip.

Early April 2010 Mr. Oldham received notification from Al Johnson’s office requiring the removal of signs placed near the active runway to protect it from snowbirds driving vehicles onto the runway. This requirement was strongly objected to by me. In fact I advised Al Johnson the signs would remain in place as long as the town council supported the Emergency Airstrip. As a result the signs remained where I had placed them. Within two weeks Mr. Oldham received a citation stating an illegal sign must be removed from the public right-of-way.

The problem with the citation was it was delivered with a picture depicting a hand holding the citation below a sign “Private Property Keep Out” that was clearly on Mr. Oldham’s property. No mention what-so-ever was made to the warning banner placed near the active runway.

After that incident Al Johnson was observed on several occasions over the next few months trespassing on Mr. Oldham’s private property snapping pictures of everything in sight. He continued to send letters demanding the removal of what he claimed to be illegal signs posted near the airstrip.

From December 2009 until January 2011the runway remained protected by a large 3’ X 8’ warning banner, signs, painted barrels, caution tape, earthen barriers and telephone poles. That is until the morning of January 5th, 2011. Al Johnson stepped up his harassment efforts against Mr. Oldham and the Airstrip.

Early January 2011 Al Johnson again insisted I remove the large Red banner from what he claimed was the town’s right-of-way. Again I refused. I stated he could remove the banner, but, I would not because it would leave no warning to snowbirds of the active runway directly in front of them. Al Johnson left and the banner remained. To my surprise the following week the town erected two permanent signs ⅓ mile to the east of the airstrip, close to the large Primitive Road sign, indicating the road was temporarily closed except for residents. Wow! I thought the town changed their mind and was now in support of the runway. Not the case! The next week Al Johnson made his next vindictive move.

Mr. Oldham’s employees witnessed Al Johnson remove two of my painted barrels and the caution tape strung between them. Al Johnson loaded them into the box of a town pickup truck and haul them away. His act of aggression towards the Airstrip left the runway unprotected against snowbirds and others driving their vehicles onto the runway. Al Johnson did this while four pilots had aircraft on the property and were actively flying on a daily basis. As the Airstrip manager I did everything within my ability to protect the runway. I called several offices of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as well as pilot associations. The FAA from the Los Angeles Regional Office advised me to do whatever was needed to protect the public safety. Therefore, I moved mounds of earth to where Al Johnson removed the barrels.

The new earth mounds once again gave some protection to the runway on an emergency basis. However, the very next morning just after 8:00 am Al Johnson was back at the Airstrip with camera in hand taking pictures of my efforts to protect the runway. He then waited in the town’s pickup truck for me to react to his continued harassment. I did approach his truck and asked to speak to him. He stated he could not talk to me. So, I explained what a pilot goes though on a final approach to the runway. He was told that a pilot on a final approach would be looking at the far end of the runway to keep his aircraft centered on the runway. A pilot would not see anything approaching from his side like a motor vehicle. I then asked Al Johnson why he would take part in any action that could cause a fatal accident on the runway. He said nothing. I have that conversation on Video.

The next morning Al Johnson and Police Chief Gilbert forced Mr. Oldham to remove the earth barriers I had placed on January 5th. I advised Mr. Oldham I would no longer act as manager because I could not take part in creating or allowing conditions to exist that are likely to result in a tragedy. All was not well at Quartzsite’s Emergency Airstrip.

One would think the harassment would end with such egregious action from town officials. But, the worst was still in Al Johnson’s planning stages it would seem. Because on March 2nd a local news paper photographer showed up just after 8:00 am and told a local contractor she was waiting for the town’s public works vehicles to show up. She was told town officials planned to cut a 50’ wide ditch through the runway. Why would Al Johnson attempt to escalate his harassment efforts to a new low point? As I pondered that thought something came to mind. The preceding week I went to the town police department and asked Police Chief Gilbert for his assistance with traffic control at the airstrip during this year’s March air race event of the women’s 99 aviation group. Could Chief Gilbert also be playing an active role in this vendetta? If that were the case, all past rumors pertaining to Chief Gilbert going around Quartzsite could have some merit.

The contractor called me in a panic. I in turn called 911 because I was expecting a four place airplane to arrive that morning. Cutting a ditch in the runway would surely cause a horrific crash if the airplane’s landing gear came into contact with a ditch. The town’s employees did not show up that morning. However, Police Chief Gilbert did respond to my 911 call and gave me a lecture on calling 911 when no real emergency existed. He went on to tell me not to call 911 again unless a crash occurred on the runway. He then stated if I again made a 911 emergency call to protect the runway I would be arrested for making a false emergency 911 call.

One week later on March 8th Police Chief Gilbert escorted the town’s public works construction equipment to the runway. The town’s public works employees made short work of digging a 6” to 8” deep by 50’ wide cut through the runway. When completed the workers left the scene without placing any warning what-so-ever to aircraft that may land on the destroyed runway. I was left standing there looking at the deliberate act to cause a pilot to crash upon landing on the runway. Even worse in my eyes was Police Chief Gilbert’s complete disregard to protect the public safety that he took an oath to do. When confronted on this issue Chief Gilbert stated he was ordered by his boss town manager Alex Taft to keep the peace while the town’s employees destroyed the runway. Chief Gilbert also told me I could not call 911 to report the town’s actions because it did not constitute an emergency in his opinion. Apparently if I would have placed a call to 911 I would have faced serious consequences because Chief Gilbert next stated “don’t even think about calling 911”. Please keep in mind this destruction of the runway took place as the polling places opened on the town council’s recall election. It looked to me like a last great act of defiance on the part of an out of control town government that may have lost their power by the day’s end.

As of this writing on March 25th the town of Quartzsite has not placed any warning on the runway to alert a pilot landing on a damaged runway. Why do officials of Quartzsite want to see someone killed at the airport? If you think for one moment this is not their intent, you would be wrong. The officials of Quartzsite believe Mr. Oldham will be held liable when the anticipated accident occurs. I feel the town’s officials should be charged with premeditated manslaughter when the unavoidable happens. Believe me, I have called every federal and state office I can think of to protect the lives of the unsuspecting pilots. No one and I mean NO ONE cares. Every person I talk to has told me it is not their problem. If that is the case, Who’s Problem Is It? Mr. Oldham had nothing what-so-ever to do with this entire vendetta other than support a person running for public office.

In summary I am left with a burning question. Why would town officials entertain a vendetta with the end goal of running it’s founding farther and first Mayor out of town? One would think Richard Oldham, whose signature is on the town’s incorporation documents, would be held in high regard as the town’s first Mayor and a life long supporter to improve the community.

copyright by Rocky Bertsch 2011
This document may be reprinted, but, only in it’s entirety. It may not be edited nor may excerpts be used without written consent from the author. The author may be contacted via email at