Heicher: A downvalley take on the Eagle Co. airport | VailDaily.com

Heicher: A downvalley take on the Eagle Co. airport

Kathy Heicher
Vail CO, Colorado

The view on whether the airport needs a name change looks a little different from downvalley.

We acknowledge that the airport has some identity confusion going on. Locals call it the “Eagle County Airport.” Most of the travelers who fly into it think it’s the “Vail Airport.” Some airlines and travel agents call it the “Vail-Eagle Airport.”

Still, the people who need it seem to find it.

We agree that resort and real estate development in Vail and Beaver Creek are the engines that drive the local economy.

We understand that “branding” is a marketing term these days; and not necessarily an identification process that ranchers go through with hot irons and cattle in the spring. Appropriate “branding” of the airport will ultimately provide the platform for a marketing scheme that will make the airport more successful. And a busier airport means more money coming into the county, more jobs, better air service, and greater tax revenues. (We’ll talk about the subsequent increases in traffic and airplane noise impacts another time.)

Still, that marketing goal, no matter how worthy, is not a reason to wipe out local history. No marketing plan can out-weigh local heritage.

Vail and Beaver Creek resorts may be strong financial supporters of the local airport, but they didn’t create it. Check the archives.

As early as the 1920s, Eagle businessman Eldon Wilson, a man known for his vision, perseverance and fascination with flying, was talking about creation of an air field between Eagle and Gypsum.

In the mid -1930s, Wilson and his fellow airplane aficionados Ed Belding and Harold “Mick” Randall borrowed a county maintainer to scrape off a strip of sagebrush on Cooley Mesa and create a runway for their model planes.

Before long, the mesa was getting occasional visits from barnstorming pilots, who offered aerial sight-seeing tours for locals.

Wilson kept dreaming and talking. By the late 1930s, community business leaders became aware that the Civil Aeronautics Authority (which later became the FAA) was looking for an emergency landing strip within the flyway that stretched from Denver to Los Angeles.

The locals did their own marketing. They lobbied state officials and Congressmen, boasting about the annual average of 334 days of clear weather on Cooley Mesa. With Wilson in the lead, they were determined to make the “flying field” an official facility.

Many helped out. The county purchased three, 40-acre tracts on the mesa.

Sweetwater rancher and state legislator William F. Stevens, County Commissioner Wayne T. Jones, and Wilson spent hundreds of hours leveling the field. They again borrowed county equipment to create a strip 3,400 feet long and 300 feet wide.

Finally, the feds were satisfied. On Sept. 14, 1947, the facility, which had been called everything from “the local airfield” to the “landing strip” was to be formally designated as the Eagle County Airport.

Newspaper reports of the event capture the excitement. Colorado Governor Lee Knous, and the legendary U.S. Senator “Big Ed” Johnson were the official speakers at the dedication ceremony. There was a display of state-of-the-art aircraft.

The towns of Eagle and Gypsum hosted a community barbecue, followed by a dance at the American Legion Hall. The local roping club staged a rodeo, with a record $500 in ticket sales.

Eldon Wilson was the man of the hour.

The Eagle County Airport was, and still is, a source of community pride. The county officials who had the vision and the foresight to turn it into a regional airport should be proud. But the county shouldn’t be considering making a chunk of significant local history disappear.

Vail is a great place. It’s a part of the Eagle Valley, which is a part of Eagle County.

“Eagle County Airport” is a great name, with a great heritage. The marketing experts can find a means other than a name change to help travelers understand they’re headed to Vail.

Kathy Heicher is an Eagle resident and the former editor of the Eagle Valley Enterprise. E-mail comments to letters@vaildaily.com.

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