America's Airports

Landing on the mesa

February 1, 2009

Dawn on the first Saturday after Christmas did not bring cooperative weather for a visit to Telluride Regional Airport in Colorado. The temperature was 1 degree Fahrenheit, soon to drop to zero. The road (there is only one) from the Blue Jay Lodge in Placerville, Colorado, to Telluride was covered in two to three inches of packed snow and glazed ice. It had snowed an inch in Placerville, but six inches at the airport 16 miles away.

Still, this was the day Airport Manager Richard Nuttall said was likely to be one of the busiest of the year and, as it turned out, he was right.

By 6 a.m. line technician Russ Bryson was aboard the airport’s behemoth snow blower that throws a stream of snow 150 feet in a 60-foot-tall arc. It gets probably no miles to the gallon and lurches along at 5 mph when in a hurry. With its 500-horsepower engine, it can do zero to 25 mph—its top highway speed—after a couple of minutes. Ahead on Runway 9-27 is a 450-horsepower truck pushing snow into a row for the blower to fling far from the runway.

The effort leaves the runway with poor braking action, so a truck is fitted with a brush to beat the hard-packed patches of ice into submission. The result is an improvement, but still not enough to allow some of the larger business jets stranded by snow for days to leave. Light snow continues to fall.

If there’s an accident, it will be the line technicians such as Bryson and Adam Ramirez coming to the rescue because they are also trained firefighters. The airport fire chief, Clint McDonough, is running the front desk at the general aviation counter. There could be some celebrities coming through today as well, and line technician Eric Hofmann will be their escort. “No one really pays any attention. We are here to facilitate their coming and going,” Nuttall says. Tom Cruise once joined the line technicians and marshaled aircraft.

Jerry Seinfeld reportedly is in town (who really knows?), and talk show star Kelly Ripa has reservations tomorrow night at La Marmotte, one of the town’s finest restaurants (but she’ll later cancel). The celebrities will be ignored, as is the custom in Telluride.

The skies clear but now a fog bank threatens to the east, causing a rainbow among the fog particles as the sun finds its strength. Bob Wallick is first to arrive in his Swearingen Merlin IIIA to await passengers. Retired from the airlines, he now owns Falcon Flight and will spend the next few days flying charters for a variety of customers from Colorado to Texas.

If things get too crazy today and space disappears on the ramp, pilots will be told to “drop and go” because there is nowhere for them to park. Most pilots are aware of the special skills needed for this airport. Generally, it is a one-way runway. To the east lies higher terrain—and a box canyon. Rotor clouds sometimes form on the south side of the airport. Proper radio procedures are important since the airport has no tower.

Overshoot to the west and the runway ends in a 1,000-foot drop-off. To the east a less severe slope drops 600 to 800 feet. The real danger comes in summer when temperatures and density altitudes are high. T-shirts and sweatshirts sold at the general aviation counter proclaim, “Some fly at 9078’. WE LAND.” It is the highest commercial airport in the United States.

Barrett Duff of RB Aviation in Kalispell, Montana, delivering passengers today, recalls the summer day when he computed that he could not take off at a temperature higher than 76 degrees F. His passengers arrived at the Telluride terminal with the temperature at exactly 76 degrees F. “Don’t raise the gear too soon,” Duff advises. “The airport climbs as fast as the airplane is climbing.” Both ends are higher than the middle, so there is no way to avoid a rising runway.

Some pilots have attempted takeoffs at Telluride in summer at too great a weight. Line technicians have seen a Cessna 182 and, another time, a jet depart Runway 27—then dip out of sight. All had a harrowing time in the narrow valley beyond. A Cessna Caravan departed Runway 9, dropped out of sight, and reversed course to the west while below the airport’s elevation. The airport is located on a natural mesa that includes a dip in the center; the dip was not filled when the runway was constructed. If funding is available, the airport will close from April 7 to November 2 while 3 million cubic yards of material are shifted from the higher ends to the center of the runway to raise the center dip by 14 feet.

It’s about time for a runway refurbishment, even without the work necessary to correct the dip. Ultraviolet light saps the oil out of the asphalt, requiring a protective coating to be applied every three to four years. The airport’s single runway has lasted about 20 years.

Inside a large hangar, aircraft maintenance technicians from California-based OnCall Corporate Jet Repair struggle to replace a brake line on a large jet. The go-team includes Art Thompson from Cessna Aircraft in Wichita; Chad Morgan of OnCall from Rifle, Colorado; and Greg Gerhard of OnCall from Montrose, Colorado. The jet took off from an eastern airport in slush and immediately retracted its gear, freezing the brakes to the wheels. Tires blew on landing in Telluride, twisting a metal brake line at two places.

Outside the skies have turned blue and 18 aircraft are inbound, including five air carriers with passengers who have waited for days for the weather to improve. Once they arrive, piles of ski cases emerge from cargo holds. Many of the commercial and private jet passengers face southwest and raise their point-and-shoot cameras toward an unheralded attraction—the very mountain seen on the Coors beer can.

Also arriving is Perry Steger of Georgetown, Texas, who has brought five people to Telluride in his Cessna 206. He is here with his wife, son, daughter, and the daughter’s boyfriend to ski and snowboard, and makes the trip two to three times a year. He had to divert to Alamosa, Colorado, for a day to wait for Telluride’s weather to improve.

Kevin Kiernan of San Diego has arrived with his personal pilot in an Eclipse 500 jet to visit his newly built Lumiere Hotel in Mountain Village, just across the mountain from Telluride. The hotel has 29 “keys,” meaning 29 rooms in the parlance of real estate developers. He puts 450 hours a year on the jet and has projects in four states.

In the afternoon a helicopter owned by HeliQuest International of Canada lands with a Colorado Department of Transportation team and Susan Hale of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The team has dropped dynamite all day on snowfields where the avalanche threat is high in order to make the area safe for skiers, residents, and highway traffic. “There has been 61 inches of snow this week,” Hale says.

As the day ends, local resident and photographer Brett Schreckengost leaves the airport for a nearby mountain. There, he skies out to a warming shed used by rescue ski patrols to await the sunset. He is at just the right elevation to show that famous dip in the runway. As he waits, clouds close across the sky once again, contributing to a spectacular sunset. Another day in ski paradise has ended.

E-mail the author at alton.marsh@aopa.org.

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | <em>AOPA Pilot</em> Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.