When arriving at the Oakdale Municipal Airport, one of the first sights off Laughlin Road is a line of empty trucking trailers lining the north perimeter of the facility. From the parking lot, dilapidated and parted out airplanes from another era rest on the tarmac like discarded cars parked on front lawns of low rent neighborhoods. Behind the newer hangars, sit construction equipment, company vehicles, and supplies of a local construction company owner as a storage perk due to his tenancy. Airport offices are shells even though they announce services as a lounge, mechanic, rentals, and instruction.
According to various persons, the causes for the blight are lack of a fixed base operator, feuding tenants over upgrades, and an airport commission with conflicts of interests.
No Fixed Base Operator
A “fixed base operator” or “FBO” is a commercial business granted the right to operate at an airport and provide services such as fueling, aircraft rental, maintenance and repair, flight instruction, and tie-down services.
Currently, Sierra West Airlines occupies the two main business offices located at the Oakdale Airport but according to many in no way operates as a fixed base operator.
“Strange things are going on in those offices,” said local pilot and airport tenant Bill Bradford. “Sierra West is nothing more than a trucking company. They’re not doing any airport operations.”
Justin Barnes, general manager for Sierra West, described the company as an “on-demand charter, cargo, and air-ambulance service.” He said the company has prior FBO experience operating at the Hayward Jet Center in the Bay Area. For the Oakdale airport, Barnes said the company offers two rental planes (that are under repair) and some mechanical services.
Barnes said part of the problem is that the company has been operating on a month-to-month lease for the last 13 years despite their desire for something long-term. He blamed the lease negotiations delay by the city switching personnel. With a long-term lease, Sierra West can then make investments to the property including needed improvements to provide services.
At the April 21 Oakdale Airport Commission meeting, it was announced that Sierra West recently bid to operate as the FBO for the airport, promising thousands of dollars of improvements for a 16-year lease paying $3150 per month.
Commission member, and long-time pilot, Dick Jorgensen made his displeasure with Sierra West known, going on record that he did not believe the bid process allowed for enough time for other bidders to compete.
“What Sierra West is doing is not aviation,” Jorgensen said after the meeting. “If they have rentals, they’re always ‘in the shop.’ For the last seven years, it’s been, ‘They’re in the shop.’”
Jorgensen also pointed to 13 years ago when Merle Furry sold his aviation business to the Robinsons, who now own Sierra West. Jorgensen claims that for about four years the company provided mechanical repair services then declined to only providing repair to their own aircraft.
Oakdale Public Works Director Joe Leach recently took over supervision of the airport with the city’s Deputy Director Dave Myers being placed on leave.
Leach said the airport needs a true FBO that provides all airport-related services. He said he was aware of the complaints about Sierra West’s lack of services and them using the facility for storage.
Feuding Over Upgrades
“There’s a contingent that says ‘it’s a dusty rural airport’,” said Leach. “Others are in the camp to make it a business model.”
In addition to the airport commission that advises on operations, other citizen groups have been established to assist in the development of the city-run airport. Unfortunately, according to Leach, some of the groups’ leaders have quit in frustration and lines of communication have been severed.
Oakdale resident Dan Gutridge of Synergy International agreed to volunteer to facilitate at workshops for the groups, bringing airport stakeholders together.
“They need to do some new thinking,” Gutridge said. “I wanted to get people to focus on a common cause and form a business plan.”
During one meeting Gutridge said he was “lambasted” by Jorgensen, being accused of not having authorization to be going in the direction they were going.
“Mr. Jorgensen was trying to maintain control and drive his ideas,” Gutridge suggested.
With the assistance of one of the citizen groups, the forward planning committee, Leach presented an update to the Oakdale City Council on April 18.
Jorgensen, waving the report in the air, criticized the recommendations as “nice to have, but not necessary because of the economic times.”
“People don’t know what this airport is all about,” said Bradford, who has conducted an extensive survey of 12 local area airports. “Some are going to let it wither away due to politics and personal interests.”
Bradford has been a big proponent of getting electricity to the hangars as well as security cameras and fencing around the airport.
“Federal grant money is available but no one from the city wants to pursue it,” said Bradford.
He also pointed to the new Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) hangars that have been equipped with electrical service that EAA paid to have installed. Bradford said when he approached EAA President Kevin Benziger to tap into the line, Benziger tried to secure a $5,000 fee from him to allow the upgrade.
The rift between Bradford and Benziger continued to an October 2010 “Candidates Night” that EAA was sponsoring at the airport. According to Bradford, when he went to the event, he was threatened with arrest for “trespassing.” Oakdale Police were called and escorted Bradford off the premises as an uninvited person. Bradford (and information submitted prior to The Oakdale Leader) listed the event as being open to the public.
“There’s no issue at this airport except one lone ranger who’s a trouble maker,” said Benziger when contacted. “Bill’s on his own campaign with his own agenda.”
Benziger claimed that Bradford was verbally abusive prior to the start of the meeting, which is why he had him removed. Benziger also said that the cost offered to Bradford for electrical access was the cost for the construction.
Commission Conflicts of Interest
The Oakdale Airport Commission is made up of five individuals appointed by the city council to advise them on the operation and administration of the airport. Three of the five have direct ties to the airport.
The chairperson of the commission, Kendra (Robinson) Peterson, is the daughter of the owner of Sierra West, Ken Robinson, and serves as one of Sierra West’s vice-presidents.
Peterson said she avoids any conflict of interest and recuses herself in matters involving Sierra West.
During the April 21 commission meeting however, Peterson chaired the discussion on the bid of Sierra West to be the FBO.
“It’s blatantly slanted to have someone in that position,” Jorgensen said. “I have a problem with her being the chairperson when we’re dealing with many Sierra West matters on a regular basis. How she got approved is subject to the council.”
Commission members Benziger and Dennis Bailey also are in positions to have a conflict of interest. They both serve as board officers for the EAA.
Bradford indicated that EAA was the only group to build hangars and put in electrical service to their hangars. He claims that Bailey, who owns Bailey Enterprises of Oakdale, a construction company, has done improvement projects at the airport in exchange for airport considerations, using his position as a commission member to obtain approvals.
Benziger said he “believes” the proper permits for EAA hangar construction were obtained from the city in an agreement with former manager Myers. He said that Myers allowed EAA to build restrooms next to their facility without permits since they were going to be open to all and considered a benefit to the airport.
When asked about the storage of Bailey Construction vehicles and materials behind the EAA facility, Benziger deferred comment to Bailey.
The Sierra West FBO bid will be discussed at the Monday, May 2 city council meeting. The next meeting of the Oakdale Airport Commission is May 12 at 7 p.m. at the council chambers.