Staff photo by Dean H. Borgwardt
AIRPORT operator Kent Whisman monitors his radio as a plane touches down at Cottonwood Municipal Airport on Nov. 19. Vandals have damaged airport equipment to the cost of more than $15,000.
The damage has been reported to be more than $15,000, and the City of Cottonwood has to shell out the cash for repairs.
Police, city officials and airport administrators are fuming and have established a $1,000 reward for a conviction.
Cottonwood Police Lt. Keith Porter said that police have received six reports from the airport in the last two months.
"The vandalism has reached the felony level now, and some incidents have been narrowed down within an hour of each other," Porter said. "Some of the incidents have even occurred in broad daylight."
He said that broken glass on the runway raises serious safety issues for pilots and even passengers, as a blown airplane tire can lead to serious injury or death.
"This raises the stakes," Porter said. "Then we are talking about endangerment or manslaughter charges."
Porter said that this being a federally funded airport augments the consequences.
"If it's juvenile activity then we are looking at restitution from the parents, and they have skyrocketed," he said. "If it's an adult, then there is some jail time coming, especially if they already have a record. Either way, it's felony criminal damage so far."
Vandals have smashed about 25 runway lights, strobe lights and automated landing equipment.
During a Cottonwood City Council meeting Nov. 18, the airport vandalism issue was addressed.
Cottonwood City Manager Brian Mickelsen said that cost of repairing the damage and keeping the airport functional during this rash of damage is coming out of the airport's operating budget, which is about $2,000 per year.
"We may be able to file an insurance claim for the damage," Mickelsen said. "Right now, we're just fixing the equipment and taking the money out of the operating budget."
He said that most of the expense is labor, as the airport must be shut down while the repairs are made.
"Staff hours are what is costing us," he said. "We need special electricians to repair some of the equipment, and that is more expensive."
Kent Whisman, with Cottonwood Air Service Inc., has been an airport operator for some 15 years.
He said that the damage has extended from the middle of the runway to the southeast end, where numerous lights and strobes were smashed, their glass domes hurled onto the runway.
The airport's precision-approach path-indicator device has also been damaged.
"Our main concern is safety," Whisman said. "My guess is that this person doesn't care about wrecking a plane or killing someone."
Whisman said that members of the Cottonwood Airport Users Association have put up $500 for part of the reward and the City of Cottonwood has matched that for a total of $1,000.
Whisman added that there are about 47 single-and twin-engine planes and jets based there and that this is the first time the airport has been damaged by malicious vandalism.
Mickelsen said that the airport has never suffered such severe damage as this recent rash has caused, and it comes on the heels of a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grant for funding a security fence that was implemented earlier this year.
Mickelsen said that the $150,000 grant from the FAA and the Arizona Department of Transportation's Aeronautics Division coupled with the city's funds would realize about $168,000 for the project that would encircle the airport with a protective fence.
Airport security issues have come to light following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"The fence will be 6 feet high with razor wire top strands," he said. "This just happened to hit us before we could get the fence in place."
The security fence should be completed by this March.
"This is not the same as minor vandalism," Mickelsen said. "This being a federally funded airport makes this is a serious matter."
Meanwhile, police remain vigilant and continue their investigation.
Porter said that citizens are good about watching the area and about reporting any suspicious activity to police.
"We urge citizens to report any and all suspicious activity to police immediately."
If you have information regarding this case, please contact Cottonwood Police at (928) 634-4246. If you wish to remain anonymous, call Yavapai Silent Witness at (800) 932-3232.