Breakfast Club
An Affiliate of the Arizona Pilots Assn.


The Knife & Fork

Breakfast Club Visits Benson, Kartchner Caverns State Park

21 Oct 2006
by Warren McIlvoy

The October Breakfast Club event featured a new fly-in destination, Benson, Arizona. Benson is a small town with 4800 residents (2004) about 45 miles southeast of Tucson. I seem to recall that Benson got its runway paved about 7 or 8-years ago but the addition of an FBO and fuel is of more recent history.

I choose to fly a more scenic route to Benson via GRINE intersection (about 5-miles north of Sahuaro Lake) and then to San Manuel and then direct to Benson. After passing to the east of the McDowell Mountains, I reported-in on our air-to-air frequency to see who was in route. It seems that some folks choose to transit the Phoenix Class B airspace to take the "desert" route and some others would take the same course that we choose. This route, after turning to a more southeasterly direction, will take you just to the east of Weaver's Needle, a prominent landmark in the Superstition Mountains. As we progress to the southeast, we soon come upon the copper mining towns of Miami/Superior along with their open-pit mining activities. A little further southeast we can observe the small copper mining community of Kearny and just a couple of minutes later, the even smaller towns of Hayden and Winkelman where the copper smelters ruled.

As we approach San Manuel, the tall stacks of the smelter at the south end of town are clearly visible. In the brief time that it took us to fly from the area northwest of Superior to just past San Manuel, we covered about a 150-years of copper mining history in Arizona.

As we depart the San Manual area, we are soon hugging the eastern slopes of the Santa Catalina Mountains that dominate the northern skyline of Tucson. After passing Rincon Peak, we commence a steep descent into Benson. The radio chatter indicates that we are using left traffic for runway 28. After parking the aircraft, it would appear that we were in the second wave of
BreakfastClub aircraft to converge on the small, (once) tranquil Benson Airport. We were greeted by our host, Nancy Martin of Southwestern Aviation.

After everyone had arrived, we broke-up into small groups to begin loading the five vehicles that Nancy had arranged for us. One group left early since they were not planning on taking the cave tour following breakfast. The remaining four vehicles followed a few minutes later as we made our way to the San Pedro Golf Club for breakfast. I had spoken with the folks at the golf club to give them a "heads-up" about having 26 people invade them for breakfast. As it turned-out, we had 29. I believe that almost everyone chose the buffet which offered the usual breakfast fare. I was somewhat disappointed in the kitchen's efforts in keeping a sufficient supply of entrees given the fact that we did not surprise them. They would resupply the warming utensils with only enough food to feed about 5-people at a time. This meant that there were unnecessary long waits between servings. The last restocking of the hashbrowns was something that, with my eyes closed, that I could not determine just what it was, certainly not like any potato dish that I have ever sampled. For the most part, the food was OK and the room was "golf club like" with great views of the golf course.

The following is a snippet of history about Benson:

"When the Southern Pacific Railroad (now Union Pacific) came through southern Arizona in 1880, the town of Benson was founded and named for Judge William B. Benson of California, a friend of Charles Crocker, president of the railroad.

The city's origins are embedded in the railroad industry, and its history etched in times of the Spanish conquistadors, Jesuit priests, trappers, the Mormon Battalion and prospectors that is now Benson and its surrounding communities. Located within the picturesque San Pedro Valley, portrait-type landscapes of endless green pastures dotted by grazing cattle are commonplace in Benson and its neighboring communities of St. David, Pomerene, J-Six Ranchettes, Mescal and Cascabel, together, the area comprises the northern portion of the San Pedro River Valley.

In addition to the railroad, the Pony Express rode to and from Dragoon with mail and the Butterfield Overland Stage carried mail and passengers from St. Louis to San Francisco. In Commemoration, Benson holds an annual celebration, the Butterfield Overland Stage Days each October.

While Benson continues to draw tourists, the city is taking steps to beautify the historical downtown district. An authentic old-style railroad depot houses the city's Visitor Center and the Benson/San Pedro Valley Chamber of Commerce. One of Benson's best features, is its numerous, long established, family owned restaurants, with home-style cooking & family-friendly atmosphere."


About 11:15 we loaded-up the four remaining cars for the drive to Kartchner Caverns State Park, about a 15-mile drive south on State Route 90. Kartchner Caverns State Park, located near the north end of the Whetstone Mountains, is a subterranean jewel box of spectacular, 200,000-year-old towering formations of stalactites and stalagmites, and is one of the only a handful of "living" caves in the world. The 550-acre park complex also includes a Discovery Center and is home to hundreds of Myotis Velfere bats, which roost here as part of their migration.

Kartchner Caverns State Park

The follow are some excerpts by Ken Travous, Director, Arizona State Parks from their booklet:

"Kartchner Caverns State Park opened to the public on November 12, 1999. Such a simple statement that is, but it took us years to be able to say it. Years of secrecy, excitement, struggle, and bafflement. Cave experts, park rangers, geologists, construction crews, bat biologists, legislators-all of us working as a team on a monumental project, the likes of which few had ever tackled before.

When Randy Tuffs (who died in 2002) and Gary Tenen first ventured into the cave in 1974, there were no human footprints. Imagine. There were footprints on the moon before there were footprints in Kartchner.

Basic chemical reactions have been the architect of this underground landscape. Those reactions that first hollowed out the limestone base are still filling it with stalactites, "soda straws," and calcite "shields," still staining the walls with mineral tapestries of reds, blue-greens, browns, grays, and whites.

Because Kartchner's humidity is almost 100 percent and the temperature is a steady 68* F just below the surface of the desert, we knew we'd need to ensure that the cave didn't dry out when we opened it to the public. Dry air would halt the essential chemical reactions still at work in the cave.

Lighting the cave would be particularly tricky. Microscopic spores would enter on people's clothing, and the lights added along the paths could trigger their growth in the humid conditions, with untold results. Keep the lights too low, however, and visitors would stumble dangerously.

The list of issue seemed endless. How would we protect the small colony of bats that roost n Kartchner during the summer? How large should a group tour be, and how long should a tour take, without threatening the subterranean ecosystem? Could we develop cave trails without stairs that would allow complete access for the disabled visitor?

I recall a hunting trip with my grandfather when I was young. Alone for a while, I found a large English walnut tree to sit under and, thinking youthful thoughts, wondered if anyone had ever sat there before. Looking down, I say a discarded tin can. I had wondered ever since if there were any place left on Earth that man hadn't ruined with disrespect. Kartchner Caverns is such a place


Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen, The Adventure Begins*

"Randy Tufts, a Tucson native had an insatiable curiosity about caves and in 1966, started making regular trips to the Whetstone Mountains looking, as he put it, "for a cave no one had ever found." After about a dozen trips into the range, Tufts had met with little success. Finally, out of frustration he stopped at the Lone Star Mine and asked one of the miners if he knew of any caves in the area. The miner said yes, there was a cave nearby.

Tufts returned with two friends and his uncle. They hiked around the limestone knolls and eventually found a sinkhole and an opening that led into a small chamber. There was a narrow crack along one wall and they looked to see if it might lead deeper in. They could determine nothing and, feeling the boulders near the crack were unstable, decided to leave. The chamber must be just another dusty dry hole that wasn't worth pursuing. However, Tufts marked the hole on his topographic map.

Gary Tenen, a fellow student and co-worker at a coffeehouse where the both worked, knew of Tufts interest in caving, but he had never tried it. Because of his own interest in science-he was an entomology student-he asked Tufts to take him on one of his caving excursions. Their first trip was to a cave in the Huachuca Mountains, south of the Whetstones, and even though it was a heavily vandalized cave, the experience was enough to whet Tenen's interest in caving.

Tufts told Tenen about his theory regarding the sinkhole that he had explored in the Whetstones and the two agreed to explore the next weekend. On a cool November afternoon, they went back and entered the sinkhole. They squirmed into the chamber, and Tufts said that, although everything looked much as he remembered it, something seemed different. "This time the air was moving." Tufts said. There was a breeze coming up from between the rocks, through a crack. Not just any breeze. It was warm, moist, and smelled like bat guano. This was new and compelling evidence." Following a year of more intensive exploration of their discovery, Randy and Gary realized that they had discovered something very special. It was only after that they had realized that what they had found was on private property, that they approached the Kartchner family to let them know about the treasure that was located on their property. Over the next 14-years, Gary and Randy, along with the Kartchner family, explored ways to protect and develop the cave. In some cases, they had assumed aliases to help conceal the location of the cave as they met with various groups and organizations around the country. It seems that the people that are known for cave exploring, are often associated with specific locations and in order to keep the location of their find a secret, it required the assumption of the aliases. Their efforts to fund the development of the cave using private funding did not prove to be feasible and after consulting with the Kartchner family, they decided that it might be more realistic to explore the possibility in convincing the state government to purchase and develop the property.

After a clandestine meeting with then Governor Bruce Babbit that captured his interest, the Governor wanted to see the cave for himself. After a tour of the caverns by Babbit and his two young sons, who were sworn to secrecy, Babbit was impressed and threw his support behind the clandestine movement to get the cave into public ownership.

It took three more years, two more governors, two more state parks directors, and some tense, behind the scenes political maneuvering before the state bought the cave. Everyone involved was so consumed with the need for secrecy that State Parks Director Ken Travous asked state legislative leaders to write the bill authorizing the cave's purchase in obscure language so that no one would know what was at stake.

Senate Bill 1188 was passed on April 27, 1988 authorizing the expenditure of $1,625,000 to purchase the property and only then was the language changed to clearly establish what is now Kartchner Caverns State Park. "


Of course, the $1.6 million to purchase the property was just the tip of the ice burg. It took many more millions to develop the property and cave into the jewel that it is today. I can recall reading about the often contentious relationship between the legislature and the State Parks Director regarding the cost overruns involving the park development. I am truly confident that, after taking one of the cave tours, that once you emerge from that jewel of a cave, that you would be indisputably convinced that they did it right.

Following the cave tour, we returned to the airport for our trip back to the valley. Most of the aircraft took on fuel to help compensate Southwestern Aviation for the use of the vehicles. And on that note, I wish to extend our deepest appreciation to Nancy Martin for her efforts on our behalf. Without her assistance, this event could not have taken place. You can visit the web site for Southwestern Aviation at:

The Benson Gang

  • Warren & Jeri-Ann McIlvoy in 93MB, BC-1 & 1.5
  • Roger Whittier and Jim Leonard in 706CD, BC-122
  • Mike & Terri Fadely in 7612G
  • Bob Mooers and Austin Erwin in 428DW, BC-27 & BC-86
  • Richard Spiegel, Nancy Shore, and Sam & Tami Foote in 15040, BC-3 & BC-57
  • Austin Goodwin in 4351X, BC-317
  • George Wilen in 5734B, BC-34
  • Lance Thomas in 3180R
  • David & Darlene Lester and Steven Lester in 5368X
  • Glen & Judy Yoder in 31TC, BC-007
  • David Klingensmith in 2236E
  • Don & Diane Graminske, Mark Graminske and Kristy Buttcher in 9064V, BC-16
  • Rick & Cindy Mays with James & Dorothy Boyd in 8402B

What's Next?

In November, the
Breakfast Club will be returning to an old favorite, Borrego Springs and the La Casa del Zorro Resort. This is one of the destinations where the adventure of getting there along with the destination, is outstanding. Our December destination is another old favorite of Douglas, Arizona and the Gadsden Hotel . That's all for now but remember, fly safe.

*Excerpts taken from: 'Kartchner Caverns State Park" by Sam Negri

You can learn a little bit more about Benson by visiting their web site at:{F91BF408-2031-4406-9DB6-6E0DDEFC1536}

Click on the Benson link to view photos of this fly-in event.