TEX is tops

November 1, 2006

Mark R. Twombly is a writer and editor who learned to fly in 1968.

The highest elevation around where I live is the crest of a short, slightly arched walking bridge that spans a lazy slough. Call it 15 feet msl. So it is in much of flatlands Florida, where we pilots are familiar with the "hot" part of the density altitude equation, but not the "high." The opportunity to get high is a big reason I enjoy flying where the sectionals are successively darker shades of brown. West of the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, lofty airport elevations are de rigueur, and go hand in hand with the other reason I like flying out West — the spectacular mountain scenery. I recently visited an airport that is the poster shot for both nose-bleed-high and jaw-dropping scenery — Telluride.

If you've flown into Telluride Regional Airport, you'll understand why I think its misplaced identifier — TEX — should be attached to some more appropriate locale such as Dallas or Houston. Telluride, on the other hand, should be known as TOP, because that's where it sits — on top of a 1,000-foot-high mesa. The mesa itself rises some 8,000 feet above sea level, making for an airport elevation of 9,078 feet msl. For good measure the runway sags in the middle.

The carrier-deck appearance and high elevation aren't the only attention-getting aspects of TEX. The airport is surrounded on three sides by towering, rugged mountains, including several of Colorado's famous "fourteeners" — peaks that reach to at least 14,000 feet msl. That's serious, gorgeous terrain.

The way in is Runway 9; the way out, Runway 27. In good weather some adventurous souls arriving from the East make a "Matterhorn approach" over the cumulogranite to Runway 27, but it's frowned on by the locals if only because it means bisecting the sky overhead the trendy, also gorgeous ski resort village nestled in the blind-canyon valley.

We would be flying up to TEX from DRO — Durango-LaPlata County — to the south. I called my friend Eliot Brown, owner and chief pilot of a TEX-based Twin Commander 840 that he uses for Part 135 charters, for a heads-up on arrival procedures. He recommended that we overfly the airport from south to north, cross a high ridge just to the north of the field, then descend for a left-hand pattern to Runway 9.

Fortunately, the weather was clear-and-a-million with light winds for the short cross-country and arrival. Turning final, TEX's concave runway looked deceptively shorter than its 6,870-foot length. Strict adherence to approach power, speed, descent rate, and the PAPI glidepath guidance was rewarded with a respectable touchdown and turnoff at the first taxiway to the ramp.

The ramp was busy with a variety of A-list business jets. I was a bit surprised at the heavy iron presence, given the combination of high airport elevation, relatively short runway, and rising terrain. Apparently, none of the jets was headed very far — light takeoff weight is the order of the day when departing TEX.

Even more surprising was the line of people boarding a Beech 1900. Turns out Great Lakes Airlines has scheduled service to and from Denver, making TEX the highest commercial airport in the United States. I'm told by a former Great Lakes pilot that the airline's single-engine IFR missed approach procedure at TEX is not for the faint of heart.

While tidying up the airplane, I saw an Aviat Husky taxi out for takeoff. "Pretty cool place to fly a light airplane," I thought to myself, then decided to find out more about the Husky and its driver.

It's a 1993 A-1A and it's owned and flown by Paul Engbring, a former building contractor in Texas and now full-time Telluride resident and family man. Engbring has owned the airplane almost since it was new. He uses it for recreational mountain flying, and also to commute a few times a week to Cimarron Air at Montrose, Colorado, where he is doing on the job training for an airframe and powerplant certificate. It's a one-hour round trip in the Husky versus three in a car. "I save a lot of time, and flying is so much more fun," he explained.

At Montrose he rents a hangar where he works on his personal rebuild projects including a Cessna 195, a pair of Piper Super Cubs, an old motor home, some cars, and various other vehicles of interest.

Because of the effects of elevation, Engbring takes off from TEX at 65- to 70-percent power even with throttle firewalled and mixture leaned. Once airborne he slowly climbs and heads west to Last Dollar Pass, then turns north and hugs the mountains until the terrain drops away. Sometimes he'll take up an easterly heading to cavort in the really high stuff, "because I like doing that. Low and slow. That's why I have a taildragger."

He has flown the Husky south to Baja, California, Mexico, and north to Alaska, where his brother flies floats. He is called on for search-and-rescue flights, he donates rides to local fund-raising efforts, and he works with area backcountry pilots to save and rehabilitate mountain strips.

To really enjoy the Husky, he seeks out remote forest service strips and river sandbars. "That's the most fun," he said, adding, "This is the perfect place to fly." I looked around, and was convinced.

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