70 years ago this week, dignitaries dedicated the Eagle County Airport
EAGLE COUNTY — Seventy years ago this week, around 2,000 local citizens attended dedication ceremonies for an amenity that would eventually transform the Vail Valley’s economy — the Eagle County Regional Airport.
Of course, the facility was much more humble back in 1947, when Colorado Gov. Lee Knous traveled up from Denver to preside at the dedication.
“Perfect weather was the background of the brief but impressive service when guests from many points of the state were present to dedicate another link in the rapidly growing network of transcontinental airways,” reported the Sept. 19, 1947 edition of the Eagle Valley Enterprise.
While the official airport dedication didn’t happen until after World War II, according to a 2007 book authored by Jennifer L. Taylor and the Eagle County Aviation Association titled “History of Eagle County Airport,” barnstormers occasionally landed at the site in the late 1920s and 1930s. The book said that as early as 1931, there was interest in developing an airstrip for air mail and passenger service to connect Denver to western Colorado.
The Oleson brothers — Victor Julius (“Jule”) and Albert (“Al”) — were among the very first airplane owners in western Colorado. Taylor’s book notes the brothers built a hanger on their family property, near present-day Jules Drive in Gypsum. They used a dirt landing strip, located on a mesa west of the current airport, to take off and land.
Along with the Oleson brothers, early Eagle County aviation supporters included Eldon Wilson, Ed Belding and Harold “Mick” Randall. Harry A. Nottingham, who was elected as Eagle County commissioner in 1932, was also an early airport supporter.
Technology was a driving force in the creation of the Eagle County airport. “The Civil Aeronautic Administration (the precursor to the Federal Aviation Administration) maintains an airport every 100 miles on the airway. Safety in flying in a huge network of airways is the ultimate goal of the CAA,” the Enterprise reported.
According to Taylor’s account, in 1939 Federal District Airport Engineer E.G. Barry selected the present Cooley Mesa site for an airport between Leadville and Grand Junction. The site was selected because of its characteristics — no wires, trees or close proximity to high mountains.
Before the airport was officially dedicated, locals undertook many improvements at the site. In 1939, Wilson borrowed county equipment and built an access road to the site. The cost was $20.
On Dec. 4, 1945, Eagle County commissioners purchased 111.23 acres of the original Cooley property from Charles Hemberger and George Spangler. They paid $1,390. The county then began to manage the airport at an annual expense of approximately $300.
At the 1947 dedication ceremony, Harold Koonce served as the master of ceremonies.
“He introduced to the public, at the close of the talks, the man who has been directly connected with obtaining the land for the past 10 years. Eldon Wilson is really the man being the scenes. He has worked, often by himself for many years and some weary months, to see the time when this county would be able to offer the flying public a first-class airstrip as another step forward to the expanding future of Eagle County,” the Enterprise reported.
Along with the Denver dignitaries, the event attracted aviators from all over the state. Two J-5s, a C47 and a DC3 belonging to the U.S. Army were at the event.
“As climax to the day’s celebration, the Eagle Valley Roping Club staged on their grounds east of Eagle and had a record crowd in attendance, selling over 500 tickets,” the Enterprise reported.
While the CAA was instrumental in the creation of the Eagle County Airport in the 1940s, by the 1950s, the agency indicated its plans to abandon the facility. Ironically, the Sept. 12, 1957, edition of the Eagle Valley Enterprise, printed 10 years to the week after the glowing report of the dedication ceremony, reported the CAA’s decision to eliminate the county’s facility. Because of the increased reliability of aircraft, the CAA said that emergency airstrips were no longer needed every 100 miles.
“The CAA, in effect, has asked the county government to take over operations of the field,” the Enterprise reported. The county commissioners replied that they would be willing to do that.
“We feel there is a local need for this field, and we do not want to see the equipment removed and the field abandoned,” stated the official reply from the commissioners. The county applied to the FAA for transfer of the airport facilities in 1961.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Eagle County made various improvements to the site, including paving a 5,000 foot by 50 foot runway. In 1966, Rocky Mountain Airways from Denver began commercial service to the site. In 1973, John Oleson and William Stevens opened Mountain Flying Service, a fixed base operation at the site, providing fuel, rental cars and van services. In 1980, Oleson’s successful private funding campaign purchased an $80,000 instrument landing system for the facility.
General to commercial
During the 1970s and 1980s, the airport primarily served general aviation and had expanded to include hangar and aircraft storage space. But that changed by the mid-1980s.
“Mountain Flying Service and the county commissioners always wanted to expand the airport quickly. All the players knew that if the runway was expanded, commercial jetliners would begin flying into the airport. Their goal was to build a commercial terminal,” Taylor’s book states. The runway was expanded in 1986, and the inaugural direct commercial flight by Royal West Airlines from Los Angeles landed on Dec. 18, 1986.
In the three decades since that flight, commercial terminals, hangars and even the Colorado Army National Guard High Altitude Aviation Training Site have sprouted at the facility. According to Eagle County Regional Airport Aviation Director Kip Turner, when all operations are taken into account, during the winter months the facility is the second-busiest airport in the state behind only Denver International Airport. This week, the county announced this winter’s service would include direct flights from Chicago, Dallas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Houston, Newark, Washington D.C., Miami, New York, Atlanta and Toronto.
It’s safe to say the locals who assembled at the Eagle County Airport site 70 years ago this week didn’t grasp how the facility would evolve. But the newspaper account does give the impression that the crowd knew dedicating the airport was a big step.
As the Enterprise reported back in 1947, “Gov. Knous … pointed out the necessity of having such a field, as this county has, in connection with furthering air travel.”