New air traffic control tower dedicated |

New air traffic control tower dedicated

Kathy Heicher

He would have been pleased to see what was happening 70 years later. County, town, state and national politicians gathered the afternoon of Jan. 30 to cut a ceremonial ribbon for the dedication of a $2.25 million, 115-foot air traffic control tower that will guide both commercial and private flights into and out of the airport. The facility was paid for by state and federal grants.

“This the second busiest airport in the state during the ski season. It is important to the county’s economic vitality and quality of life,” said Eagle’s County Congressman, Mark Udall, moments before the ribbon cutting.

County officials, who have lobbied for years for an improved tower, were all smiles. The small crowd at the dedication ceremony included the Eagle County commissioners, Federal Aviation Administration officials and representatives of the Colorado Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division. Among the first group of citizens to take a trip up to the top of the tower for a look around was former county commissioner Dick Gustafson, who was instrumental in developing the rural airfield into a regional facility capable of handling commercial flights.

Following Gustafson up the elevator were Allen Nottingham of Avon and Mike Lederhause of Burns, both private pilots who have flown out of the Eagle County Airport for years.

The Eagle County Regional Airport, carved out of a mesa that once served as ranch pasture, was dedicated in 1947. In 1989, it was still a small facility, serving only 277 commercial passengers.

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In the years that followed, the county undertook an ambitious runway expansion and development of terminal facilities. In 1996, a new, $9 million, 66,000-square-foot terminal was opened. In February, 2001, a minor hoopla celebrated the arrival of the two-millionth commercial customer.

Numbers indicate that when comparing peak-day passenger traffic – during the ski season – the local airport is the second busiest in Colorado after Denver International Airport. Overall, the Eagle County Airport ranks as the fourth busiest airport in the state.

County officials have long argued that an improved tower would ease air traffic at the airport.

“It is a safer operation. We have better spacing of airplanes, and traffic control,” says Ovid Seifers, airport operations manager. He noted that some insurance companies won’t allow corporate airplanes to fly into an airport with a non-controlled environment.

The funding came together over the past couple of years, in the form of two consecutive grants from the CDOT Division of Aeronautics and a matching grant from the FAA.

The tower is what is known in the airport business as a “contract tower.” Under a program administered by the FAA, the county contracts with a private firm, West Air Traffic Control Services out of Kansas. Seifers says the tower is staffed by anywhere form one to two air traffic controllers 12 hours a day, 365 days per year. The FAA reimburses the county for the cost of that service. Those hours are extended from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. during the peak of ski season, from early December to April 1.

The tower features improved viewing, upgraded equipment and additional controller stations for accommodating the growing demands of the airport.

Construction of the tower started in April of 2003, and was completed in time for this season’s operations in mid-November.

This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.

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