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High: The History of Sedona Airport
by Dr. David Allen
October 31, 1956, E. L. Peterson, the Acting Secretary of
Agriculture, deeded the 230 acres on top of the Mesa and the
easement for the road right of way to Yavapai County as a
public airport in perpetuity. The transfer was approved by
the Attorney General of the United States on February 6th,
1957. Later that year, the first Civil Aeronautics Administration
(CAA) grant of $13,420 paved a 3,700-foot runway in a north-east
to south-west direction, along with some aircraft parking
In 1958, four aircrafts were
based on the strip, including two Cessna 180’s of Oak Creek
Flying Services. The airport had one small hangar, runway
lights and a small rotating light beacon. A phone booth was
set up with a dime and the gas station phone number taped
to it. Fishermen and hunters began to fly in and several deer
hunters got their bucks right smack on the runway.
By 1963, Sedona had 10 churches,
14 restaurants, 21 motels and three private art galleries.
The Forest Service welcomed 665,838 visitors that year. Along
Grasshopper Flats (today’s West Sedona), the drilling of the
first well by Carl Williams in 1953 had led to a real estate
boom and the development of homes where there had been only
ranches. Big Park had begun to open up when water was found
On the Mesa, the runway was
extended in 1968 to its present length of 5,130 feet. There
was a lot of community bickering about the airport. Some citizens
felt taxpayers money should not be used to run an
airport that might diminish their property values; some were
worried about the noise; and some pilots felt that the airport
was not being managed properly.
In his memoirs, “Red Rocks
and Blue Skies,” Harner Selvidge describes coming to Sedona
in 1969 and seeing on a motel TV screen a notice written by
Jim Geary, a pilot and real estate broker who owned the Sedona
TV cable system. “THERE WILL BE A MEETING ABOUT THE FUTURE
OF THE AIRPORT, WEDNESDAY NIGHT, AT THE MASONIC TEMPLE. ALL
THE KOOKS WILL BE OUT, SO BE SURE AND ATTEND.”
Selvidge, an electronics engineer,
real estate developer and pilot of repute, moved to Sedona
later in 1969. He writes: “The county Supervisors were tired
of constant bickering about the airport, and those of us who
were pilots using it were apprehensive that they might chuck
the whole thing in disgust.”
So Selvidge, John Carruthers,
and Mel Arthur incorporated
the Sedona Oak Creek Airport Authority (SOCCA) and, according
to Selvidge, “went to the Yavapai County Supervisors with
a proposal that if they gave us a long-term lease for the
Sedona Airport property, we would take this thorn out of their
sides. They fell on our shoulders, and on January 18, 1971,
enthusiastically signed the 25-year lease we drew up.”
For a dollar a year, SOCCA
took control of the 230 acres on top of the Mesa. The airport
consisted of a paved runway, a paved parking area with two
fuel pumps and a shack for the attendant, the old decrepit
hangar built in 1956 with a low-power rotating beacon on top
of it, a cloth wind sock, some cheap runway lights, and a
small radio transmitter and receiver for communicating with
aircraft in the vicinity. No more county funds would be available
and all income was to be used for airport improvements.
Fourteen aircraft were based
there permanently, as were numerous deer, coyotes, and occasionally
cattle, which broke through the surrounding fence.
According to Selvidge, SOCCA decided that the Airport Authority’s
objective would be to provide a “quasi-governmental mechanism
to permit private business to operate at the airport supplying
services to local and transient aircraft owners. The Authority
would not compete with them or operate any business itself.”
John Carruthers started a
Fixed Base Operation (FBO), whose income came from the sale
of fuel, rental of parking spaces, maintenance of aircraft
and sale of parts and supplies. Selvidge became President
of SOCCA and tried to get some local business persons who
were not pilots to be members of the group, but none had any
continuing interest. So, then as now, the airport was run
Through the 1970’s, improvements
were made in the airport facilities and hangars were built.
Runway resurfacing, taxiway paving and enlarged apron parking
areas for aircraft were financed by grants from the Federal
Aviation Administration trust funds with much smaller matching
funds from the State and from the local Airport Authority.
By 1978, 35 planes were based
at the airport and there was an average of 40 flight operations
(landings + take-offs) per day (more than 12,000 operations
a year), of which some 500 were charter flights.
Carl Bliss had taken over
Carruthers’ FBO. His Sedona Air Services, provided fuel, maintenance
and car rentals. Robert Jackson rented space from him and
provided charter service and flight instruction as Northern
Arizona Aircraft. Jack Seeley operated Sedona Aircraft Center
providing aircraft services, charters and flight instruction.
In 1980, the population of
Sedona was 5,319 and a lot of homes had been built in the
Grasshopper Flats area. A Prescott man flew his Cessna into
Sedona Airport at weekends, put a notice in the parking lot
at the Overlook offering airplane rides for $9.50 per person
and flew his tour passengers up the Canyon to Midgely Bridge
and around the back of Thunder Mountain before returning to
Jack Seeley recognized that
80% of his charter business was to and from Phoenix. In 1981,
he started Air Sedona and flew three round trips to Phoenix,
seven days a week. By 1983, he was carrying an average of 300
passengers per month in winter and about twice that number
per month the rest of the year.
In 1980, Peter McKiernan and
Bert Blume arrived in Sedona from Hollywood, where they had
been providing the helicopter action for the TV series “Air
Wolf.” When the series wound down, they brought a Bell Jet
Ranger helicopter to Sedona and started selling tours. They
bought Carl Bliss’ FBO and marketed their helicopter tours
from the Hollywood glamour perspective with little success.
Their tour operation folded in 1984.
The Airport Restaurant opened
in 1981 as Stretch Madden’s Airport Restaurant, serving Mexican
food. The opening of the restaurant began the tradition of
the pilots’ coffee and tea tables, which still goes on today.
Every morning at 7 a.m., a group of pilots gathers for morning
coffee. Some fly in from Montezuma and Rimrock airports. In
the afternoon at 3.30 p.m. an overlapping group gathers for
iced tea. They shoot the breeze about airplanes and flying
and aviation in general.
Sky Ranch Lodge and Motel,
with 35 units, opened for business in 1982 and has provided
significant revenue for the Airport Authority ever since.
It has now expanded to 94 units. As it is built on County
owned land, the Lodge, in common with all other businesses
on the Mesa, pays no property taxes.
In 1982, Selvidge, now 74,
decided to get into the FBO business because, as he describes
in his book, “ I am tired of unpaved parking and taxiing areas,
pavement with chuck holes, weeds and junk around the buildings,
rickety hangars with unpaved floors, water getting in the
fuel supply. The whole area is beginning to look like a slum.”
Selvidge and Chuck Turek,
a pilot, real estate developer and general contractor, formed
a partnership called Sky Mountain Aviation and in March 1983
built an FBO facility with paved hangars, modern fuel facilities
and paved access to paved taxiways. Because the County Supervisors signed their
approval of the lease, they avoided paying sales taxes on
their building materials and avoided county property taxes.
Their operation was profitable until February 1, 1989 when
the facility went up in flames. It was reconstructed by September
1989, this time with automatic sprinklers.
In 1985, Prescott-based Golden Pacific Airlines joined in the commuter
business. In 1986 and 1987, figures from the Sedona Airport
Master Plan show almost 7,000 annual passenger enplanements
from Sedona. Golden Pacific bowed out of Sedona in 1988.
While this was going on in
Sedona, Mingus Constructors of Cottonwood were working in
the Grand Canyon to pipe water from Roaring Springs on the
North Rim to the South Rim Village. The company used helicopters
to take equipment, pipes and crew into and out of the Canyon
As the Grand Canyon project
began to wind down in 1985 and the helicopters were needed
less, Ray Bluff Jr., who was running the project, saw an opportunity
in Sedona and began to operate helicopter tours at weekends,
using the restaurant lobby as his box office. He called his
company Arizona Helicopter Adventures.
When the Grand Canyon project
finished in 1986, Bluff committed to a full-time service.
In 1987, he set up Red Rock Aviation as an FBO providing Exxon
fuel and aircraft services. In 1987, he was selling 30-40,000
gallons of aviation fuel a year and by 1992 was selling 30-40,000
gallons each month. In 1991, Private Pilot magazine named
Red Rock Aviation as the second best FBO in the nation because
of its high quality service.
In 1991, a barnstorming pilot,
Steve Bowen, parked his Waco biplane at Red Rock Aviation
and began selling tours. He did well, but left after a year.
A young man named Eric Brunner, who worked for Bluff, became
enamoured with biplanes and shortly afterwards he and his
father, Larry, started Red Rock Biplanes and have expanded
into most areas of aircraft services.
The Sedona Airport Master
Plan of 1992 gives examples of daily logs of aircraft operations.
In February 1991, there were three helicopter take-offs and
landings on a Saturday, eight on a Sunday and none during
the week. In November 1991, there were five landings and take-offs
on a Saturday, eight on a Sunday and one or two each weekday.
In 1992, Bluff’s interests
changed dramatically. He lost two helicopters, one in Deer
Valley where he had a pilot school and one in Lake Powell,
fortunately without fatalities. He decided to go back into
the family business and went to work in Southern California,
leaving one Jet Ranger in Sedona to carry on the tours.
In California, he met Mel
Cane, who operated a helicopter business out of Gillespie
Field near San Diego. He talked to Cane about his helicopter
operation in Sedona, hoping that Cane would buy him out. Cane
looked around Sedona and made a business decision to start
his own helicopter tour company. He called it Skydance Helicopters.
In February 1993, Jack Seeley
needed a break from the high stress commuter business and
sold Air Sedona to Lake Powell Air Services, which was owned
by Scenic Air, an arm of Sky West. Seeley had been using four-
and six- passenger planes. The new management brought in nine-seater
twin Piper Navahos and cut the number of round-trip flights
to four daily. For whatever reasons, the number of passengers
dwindled and, in August 1995, commuter service ended.
In 1993–94, Sedona Oak Creek
Airport Authority began doing business as Sedona Airport Administration
and decided to take full control of the aviation fuel and
hangar businesses on the Mesa. This was a radical change from
their original objectives. They first bought out Bert Blume’s
Sedona Air Services. Then they purchased Bluff’s FBO, continued
the fueling facilities as Red Rock Aviation, and made an agreement
with pilot Rich Geiger for him to keep on the Arizona Adventure
Helicopter operations. Finally, they bought out Sky Mountain
At the present time on the
Mesa, there are 11 different names of companies providing
flights, tours, charters, flight instruction and aviation
Sedona Airport began in 1955 through the incredible entrepreneurial
spirit and determination of two men, Joe Moser and Ray Steele.
With each decade since then, there have been significant changes
in the services the airport provides to the aviation and local
Next month’s article will
discuss these changes and the airport’s impact economically
and environmentally on the communities.
The author acknowledges the
following who gave so generously and freely of their time
and knowledge: The Sedona Historical Scociety and Edith Denton;
Ray Bluff, Jr.; Dave Cobb; Lawrence ‘Bo’ Fox; Mac McCall;
Geoffrey Roth; Jack Seeley; Ray Steele, and Harner Selvidge,
through his memoirs “Red Rocks and Blue Skies.”