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Small-town economy fueled by high-elevation airport


The soaring mountains and thin air around Leadville don’t merely challenge tourists and endurance athletes; they draw military, police, pilots and helicopter testing teams learning to survive in extreme conditions. Helicopter crews train and test at the highest public access airport in North America and leave behind their dollars in the small town, says Airport Manager Levi Brown.

From mid-April to mid-November each year, the Leadville-Lake County Airport buzzes with engineers and trainees from across the U.S. and sometimes Canada and Europe, Brown says. Fuel sales more than double and flight operations quadruple during the busy season. The added business helped fund a new 11,000-square-foot heated hangar completed in January, and a new storage hangar is set for groundbreaking this summer. Activity at the airport helped bring back specialized mountain flying courses for private pilots now offered by Blue Manx Aviation.

Local business owners say the hundreds of additional monthly visitors are helpful during the mud or shoulder seasons. Vicki Koch, owner of High Mountain Pies, tells her staff to get the carnivore calzones ready when she sees groups of burly but polite pilots walking in her downtown restaurant.           

“It has a great impact on our business, especially between tourist seasons,” Koch notes.

With a population of 7,349 in Lake County, the airport is a strong contributor to the local economy as outlined in multiple financial impact assessments, including from Colorado Department of Transportation.

”Together, airport, tenant, capital improvement and visitor impacts, along with multiplier effects, represent the total economic contribution of Lake County Airport (at) $3.4 million in output and 28 jobs, with an annual payroll of $942,000,” according to CDOT estimates.

Training operations and testing exercises benefit from the county-owned airport at 9,934 feet, located eight minutes from downtown, “because we are quieter and higher with very consistent weather patterns during the summer,” Brown says. The nearby mountains add airborne challenges, including what is billed as the highest private landing zone in North America at 14,026 feet near the summit of Mount Sherman operated by Leadville-based helicopter flight school RAVCO, according to owner Njord Rota.

“Flying in the mountains is a different experience from flying in any other environment,” Rota explains. “Reduced engine power, decreased lift, pilot hypoxia, terrain, and treacherous winds and weather are all working against you.”

RAVCO, with nine employees, has clients ranging from FBI pilots to the U.S. Army to Lockheed Martin. In 2013, the company started a three-week helicopter pilot training course taught in Spanish.

A wall in the Leadville airport building is filled with some 300 patches from military units that have flown through. cb

Colorado is home to eight of the nine
highest elevation airports in North America:

Leadville – 9,934 feet

Telluride – 9,070 feet

Creede – 8,680 feet

Angel Fire, N.M. – 8,380 feet Westcliffe – 8,290 feet

Granby – 8,207 feet

Walden – 8,154 feet

Buena Vista – 7,946 feet

Del Norte – 7,955 feet

Source:  CDOT and NMDOT aviation divisions

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Suzie Romig

Suzie C. Romig is a freelance journalist who has lived in Colorado since 1991. Her byline has appeared in newspapers and magazines across the state on topics ranging from small businesses to raising children to energy efficiency. She can be reached at suziecr@q.com

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