High Art

There's a skill to mastering density altitude

August 1, 2007

A Day in the Life of America's Airports

This is about art. High art. It takes gentle brush strokes to ease an airplane of normal means off the runway as the density altitude exceeds 13,000 feet. Everything — golf balls, deer, boomerangs — flies farther in the thin air of Leadville, Colorado, home to North America's highest municipal airport. At 9,927 feet, it competes with airports in Tibet and Bolivia.

The presence of Colorado's tallest and second-tallest peaks, Mount Elbert (14,433 feet) and Mount Massive (14,421 feet), is felt all the way to the wooden hangar door on the Quonset hut where a painted mountain scene, done by the airport staff, fades in the relentless sun. Flight instructor Ursula Gilgulin is the artist in residence who, besides having taught art at the college level, leads mountain-flying courses. She constantly monitors the density altitude and keeps an eye on the cycling mountain weather, hidden to the west by assemblages of rock and snow. She's doing touch and goes with a student in a Cessna 172 in the soft morning air.

Often it gets too hot for transients to take off until the next day, yet it can snow any day of the year. Civilian companies and the military bring helicopters and jets to Leadville for high-altitude tests. Earl Boeve, on the other hand, built an amphibious Seawind and plans to fly it back and forth to his cabin on a Canadian lake. He returns in the afternoon from a homebuilders meeting elsewhere in Colorado.

With long winters, the landscape is slow to wake up. Melting snow feeds the headwaters of the Arkansas River as ice on Turquoise Lake recedes into oblivion. Seven mountain passes give way to the upper Arkansas Valley and bring pilots to Lake County Airport. The 6,400-foot runway acts as a ruler, trying to measure something.

Pablo Picasso was here for the natural beauty, not so much in person, but in spirit. Author Gertrude Stein once described how the artist had predicted the future. When she flew around America in an airplane she saw cubism, the "mingling lines of Picasso, coming and going, developing and destroying themselves." Even here, in a place that celebrates the extremes between humans — from silver miners to ultra-marathon runners — and nature, the lines and shapes of Picasso, Andre Masson, and Georges Braque can be thinly traced. The fences of Lake County draw perpendicular lines and the roads and hiking trails snake through. Neighborhoods develop, then destroy themselves.

Hummingbirds are out now, beating wings harder than ever. This is spring. And the paint's still drying.

E-mail the author at nate.ferguson@aopa.org.