For 16 years, Neilson “Dutch” Bertholf steered Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport through periods of unprecedented growth.
Bertholf, who passed away March 12, began his career at Sky Harbor in 1982 when the airport recorded approximately 7 million passengers. That figure more than quadrupled to 31 million passengers when he retired in 1998.
“Dutch not only possessed extraordinary vision, but he had the depth, capacity and aviation knowledge that Sky Harbor needed immensely at the time of his leadership,” said Acting Aviation Director Tamie Fisher.
This sentiment is shared by Assistant Aviation Director Chad Makovsky.
“His impressive contribution to the aviation industry as a whole, particularly in education, cannot be overstated,” said Makovsky. “Many people at the airport today have lasting memories of Dutch.”
The aviation industry was undergoing profound changes in the 1980s, stemming largely from The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which paved the way for new airlines and more competition in the industry. During the time Bertholf served as Director, the number of airlines at Sky Harbor doubled and international air service came to Phoenix.
By the late 1980s, it was evident that the growth of Sky Harbor was not slowing down and an additional terminal was needed to effectively handle operations. In October 1989, Sky Harbor held a ground-breaking for Terminal 4, and by November 1990, the terminal was open. Also, in 1989 the Federal Aviation Administration completed a study that recommended a third runway at PHX. Bertholf was still Aviation Director when runway construction on the third runway began in 1997. (The runway was completed in 2000.)
Bertholf’s career in the aviation industry spanned more than 50 years. After serving four years in the U.S. Navy, he began his five-decade airport career at a general aviation airport in Morristown, New Jersey. Following a brief stint as a manager at Lockheed Martin, he spent five years working for the FAA as the Chief of Airport Operations and Safety in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In 1965, he returned to the airport industry once again when he became the Assistant Director at Kansas City International Airport. Fourteen years later, he became the Airport Director for the Milwaukee County Airport System.
However, his last and most distinguished airport position was that of Airport Director for the City of Phoenix Aviation Department from 1982 to 1998. During that time, Bertholf served as the president of the Arizona Airports Association in 1983-84; President of Southwest chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives in 1990-91; and chair of American Association of Airport Executives in 1996-97.
After he retired, he served as either a board member or consultant for five different companies, including Vice President of the Grand Canyon Council, Boy Scouts of America. Bertholf, an Eagle Scout, was a member of the council’s advisory board before becoming an executive board member from 2000 to 2008.
Ultimately, however, it was Bertholf’s distinguished leadership at Phoenix Sky Harbor that resonates with people today.
"Dutch Bertholf was an Aviation industry institution, here in Arizona and across the United States,” said Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton. “During years of unprecedented growth, his steadfast leadership guided Phoenix Sky Harbor to become one of the best in the country. Today's travelers, and generations more, will benefit from his legacy."
The mayor’s comments are echoed by Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher.
"Employees throughout the city have fond memories of working with Dutch Bertholf. His legacy lives on in the Phoenix airport system. Even after his retirement, he continued to give back to the community and Arizona's thriving aviation industry."
Phoenix Councilwoman Thelda Williams also has high praise for the airport’s former director.
"Dutch Bertholf built Sky Harbor into what it is today and put Phoenix on the international map,” Williams said. “His legacy and leadership had a lasting impact long after he retired from the city and he will be sorely missed."
It is perhaps most fitting that Bertholf’s own words capture the essence, beauty and prestige of the airport whose stature and preeminence he helped to establish.
"Quite frankly, I think we can continue to look forward to Sky Harbor being a very positive influence on the community," he told a Phoenix Aviation department employee who was writing an article on the 75th Anniversary of the Airport in 2010. "It’s economic development, it's a great economic engine for the community and it really needs to be nurtured to let it grow and do its thing."