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Mile high-flying vision

PHOTOS: A new book on the history of Denver's airports shows how air travel transformed the city from a cow town to a boomtown.

February 18, 2019

By Mark Cox

You could say that Jeff Price, aviation professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver and a trained pilot, knows a thing or two about planes. So it should be no surprise to hear that he and Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science Chair and Professor Jeffrey Forrest, Ph.D. have just published "Images of Aviation: Denver Airports From Stapleton to DIA," which traces the fascinating story of the Mile High City’s airports.

We caught up with Price (on terra firma, of course) to find out more.

First, can you give a brief history of Denver’s airports?
Sure. Denver Municipal Airport, based in the northeast of the city, originally opened in 1929. Following the addition of a new terminal building, it was renamed Stapleton Airfield (in honor of Mayor Benjamin Stapleton) in 1944, then relaunched againas Stapleton International Airport in 1964. Finally, Denver International Airport opened for commercial flights in 1995. And an interesting fact: After Stapleton Airport shut down, all vehicles and equipment were transferred over to DIA in time to officially open the very next morning.


Related: How a pilot shortage could change flight as we know it


The book contains lots of fascinating facts and historical details. Can you share a couple of nuggets that might surprise readers?

What I found most interesting is that the arguments people made in the 1980s against building Denver International Airport exactly mirror those made against Denver Municipal Airport back in the 1920s. Outraged Denver newspapers even used the same headlines – “Stapleton’s Folly” (1929) and “Peña’s Folly” (early 1990s) – to condemn the respective mayors who masterminded each project. There was also fierce debate about where to locate each of the airports. On both occasions, lots of people thought they were based too far away from downtown Denver – and in both cases, the city eventually grew outward to reach them.

Initial construction of Denver Municipal Airport was completed by the summer of 1929 and included just an administration building and a hanger with a lean-to maintenance shop. Photo courtesy of Arcadia Publishing.
Initial construction of Denver Municipal Airport was completed by the summer of 1929 and included just an administration building and a hanger with a lean-to maintenance shop. Photo courtesy of Arcadia Publishing.

Did any notable names come up in your research?
Yes, we have actually had a couple of aviation celebrity moments. Charles Lindbergh (yes, that one) visited Denver in the 1920s to argue that Lowry Air Force Base would make the best airport location, and Amelia Earhart also visited in 1931.

An airplane takes off from Denver International Airport. Photo courtesy of Denver International Airport.
An airplane takes off from Denver International Airport. Photo courtesy of Denver International Airport.

Were there any particular challenges with this project?
Former Mayor Benjamin Stapleton – obviously a key figure in Denver’s aviation history – was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. We decided to address the topic head-on in the book’s introduction. Because while Denver’s first airport was planned by a white man associated with the KKK, the second one was brought about by Federico Peña, the city’s first Hispanic mayor. And who officially opened DIA? That would be Wellington Webb, our first African American mayor. So what started as a problem turned out to be an inspiring tale that demonstrates how far we have come as a nation.

Denver Municipal Airport was renamed Stapleton Airfield in 1944. Photo courtesy of Arcadia Publishing.
Denver Municipal Airport was renamed Stapleton Airfield in 1944. Photo courtesy of Arcadia Publishing.

Which image in the book is your personal favorite, and why?
The final picture depicts a happy young boy in his mother’s arms as he welcomes her back from a flight – that’s my favorite. Of course, I might be biased since that’s actually my wife and one of my kids. But I used that picture because I felt it really expresses the ultimate benefit of aviation, which is to take people away for long distances, then bring them back safely to their loved ones.

The older images evoke the beauty of a golden age of aircraft but also highlight the dangers of early aviation. How risky was flying over the Rockies in those early years?
Very risky. As altitude increases, the density of the air decreases, and less air means less performance. All that air moving over the Rocky Mountains makes for some very interesting flight conditions along the peaks and valleys, and in the early days of aviation most aircraft simply couldn’t get high enough to fly over those peaks. Basically, you had to learn to fly through the valleys. Even today, a lot of small aircraft have difficulty clearing the 14,000-feet-plus peaks, so many flight schools out here provide specific classes in mountain flying.

This is believed to be the first known image of an airplane flying in the Denver area, an early biplane flying over a flat landscape. Photo courtesy Arcadia Publishing.
This is believed to be the first known image of an airplane flying in the Denver area, an early biplane flying over a flat landscape. Photo courtesy Arcadia Publishing.

Over the years, Stapleton Airport gradually became synonymous with congestion, flight delays and snow-related closures. What happened? 
The city simply outgrew the airport. As Denver itself expanded, so did the demand for more and more flights to the city, and the airport’s development never really kept up with demand. Consider this: Even though Stapleton Airport was originally perceived to be located too far out from Denver, the city eventually caught up with and then completely surrounded it, thus limiting its growth. They had to move.

DIA is a truly unique-looking airport. Do you think Denverites fully appreciate what an architectural jewel they have on their own doorstep?
When DIA’s tent roof was first unveiled, a lot of people wondered, “What in the world is that?“ But in fact the iconic design, which mimics the surrounding mountains, opened the door for future airports to take chances and incorporate local elements into their own design. It was a real game-changer. Plus, the tent roof is highly functional: It keeps the heat out during the summer and much of the warm air in during the winter.

Denver International Airport shown before it opened in 1995. Photo courtesy of Arcadia Publishing.
Denver International Airport shown before it opened in 1995. Photo courtesy of Arcadia Publishing.

Finally, name one thing you’d like people to know about Denver’s airport.
Besides looking good, DIA is now widely recognized as having pioneered a number of industry best practices, which is fantastic. And it’s also worth mentioning that many MSU Denver graduates currently do great work within DIA’s city-management structure and for the airport’s airlines. This University has made a significant contribution to our local aviation industry.


Courtesy of Arcadia Publishing.
Courtesy of Arcadia Publishing.

About the book

Images of Aviation: Denver Airports From Stapleton to DIA

By Jeffrey C. Price, Jeffrey S. Forrest and Shahn G. Sederberg

On the cusp of the Great Depression, Denver mayor Benjamin Stapleton pushed for the development of the first city-operated airport. Denver Municipal Airport opened in 1929 with three hub airlines. While Stapleton would be honored to later have the airport named after him, by the mid-1980s, the name Stapleton had become synonymous with congestion, flight delays, and frequent closures when the snow moved in. To solve the problem, Denver mayor Federico Peña envisioned a massive new airport, but when Denver International Airport (DIA) opened in 1995, its three hub airlines had whittled away to just one, and critics warned of dire consequences. Yet the airport persevered, and today, with its iconic tent roof, six runways, and 53 square miles of land, it stands amongst the most beautiful and busiest airports in the world.


 


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