Grapevine Preservation Complete
By Mark Spencer
Saving the Tonto National Forest Grapevine airstrip, once E75, but closed and abandoned for roughly 20 years, could be one of the greatest challenges ever taken on by the Arizona pilot community. It all began in 2011 with some 80 volunteers over 3 days clearing the runway edges of Ironwood, Cat Claw, and Palo Verde trees that had taken over during the strip’s abandonment. District Ranger Kelly Jardine knew he had met some committed folks that weekend, and we knew we were developing a partnership that would only grow. From our first weekend camp, Grapevine has become a favorite spot for pilots from across the country, but the deteriorating asphalt had to be dealt with, or we knew we’d have an even greater challenge of removing it altogether. While local pilots were at work on the ground, installing a fire ring, picnic tables, and eventually re-purposed Forest Service shades, the Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF) was busy back in Washington, developing a national Memo of Understanding (MOU) between the USFS and the aviation community.
Local Forest Service folks had also heard of the pending RAF/FS MOU, and welcomed its completion and potential clarification of policy on backcountry airstrips located on FS lands. The MOU was completed and signed in March of 2015, and it didn't take long for the Tonto team to embrace the spirit of the new MOU by agreeing to allow the APA and RAF to begin efforts to save the existing asphalt. Given the years of no maintenance, Grapevine’s asphalt was actually in pretty good condition, but cracks were allowing moisture to seep under the runway, weakening the base, and allowing weeds to grow up, actually requiring mowing of its surface several times each year. The APA began a fund raising campaign while contacting several asphalt supply companies, consulting with the original Grapevine airstrip civil engineer and pilot, Rodney Tang, on the best approach and materials for sealing the extensive cracking of the asphalt. One company deserves a specific mention here since they joined hand in hand with us, Crafco, Inc. in Phoenix. Crafco’s Western Regional Sales Manager, Bryan Darling, and AZ Sales Manager, Jason Ray, might as well have been pilots, as they caught the vision and became excited about the charitable aspect of our mission. I still feel a deep sense of appreciation for these guys as I think back to their effort and sacrifice.
The pilot community had a direct stake in the project, and many showed up for countless hours of backbreaking work, cleaning the miles of cracks. On the weekend of November 14th, 2015, Bryan, Jason, and their trusted man Bobby, all showed up, working two 13 hour days and another 7 hour day alongside 40 of us! Crafco’s willingness to discount the material, along with numerous donations, made it affordable, and the first stage of saving the Grapevine asphalt was completed!
We needed warmer temperatures to take on the next stage, along with another round of fundraising, research, and bids. We were not so fortunate on material discounts for the surface sealing, but we were fortunate to find DJ’s Contracting, Bobby Padilla and Jeffrey Iorio of Tucson. Jeffrey is a pilot himself, but their desire to do the best job possible is what really stood out. They understood we had a limited budget, and found ways to save $$ to meet that budget, even sleeping in FS provided facilities for two nights during the job. APA and RAF members took on the job of cleaning the surface a day in advance of the sealing, and on Friday October 15th, almost 11 months to the day from crack sealing, Grapevine would begin looking as if it had been given new life! I have to hand it to Bobby and Jeff as they would not settle for a minimalist approach, persuading us to go with a high end polymer modified material developed just for runways. This material has a very high solids content, and is fortified with a black sand. Other bidders came close to DJ’s pricing, but DJ’s put down twice the amount of material, totaling nearly 7000 gallons!
It didn't take near the number of volunteers needed as the crack sealing process, but just a hand full of volunteers were necessary, and spent the three days at the airstrip camping out. A special thanks has to go out to our senior troopers, Paul and Charlie, from Payson, who camped out and fed all of us for those three days. I can only hope to be alive at 80+ years old, let alone put out what these two troopers have for the aviation community! Another 81 year old fellow, Bill Evans, from the little town of Roosevelt, even showed up, flashing his APA card, and quite as a matter-of-fact stating, “I’m a member and I am here to help!”
Of course, this story would not be complete without mentioning the trust and effort put out by the Tonto National Forest, from the regional Forester, Neil Bosworth, to District Ranger, Kelly Jardine, to Recreation Manager, Roberto Ybarra, who was always nearby to help out with various emergencies. DR Jardine was often working side by side with us.
The Grapevine airstrip is probably one of the best examples of how partnering with land managers can and should work. The efforts have not only preserved this airstrip for future generations of recreational aviators and their families, but saved a multi-million dollar asset that the FS could never replace, an asset that is now available to them for fire staging, the USAF for training, and we’ll have to wait and see what else. Perhaps, just as important, is that it has fostered a relationship between the aviation community and the USFS that will be talked about and pointed to as an incredible success by both the FS and aviation community for years to come!
With the surface GAPP complete, DR Jardine signed the completed FAA 5010 form, and that has been filed with the FAA as the final step to place Grapevine back on the sectional! Use will continue every third weekend until charting is completed, so watch our newsletters for updates and work days left to install additional campsites.
A sincere thanks to all who helped to make this possible, some by finance, some by their time, some by both. Share this incredible story with another pilot and ask if they’ve joined the APA and RAF!