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The truth is up there

Denver International Airport has long been a hub for outlandish conspiracy theories. Here's the real story behind 5 of DIA’s most famous myths.

March 27, 2019

By Mark Cox

Thanks to 16 months of construction delays, a bum automated baggage system and a final price tag $2 billion over budget, Denver International Airport was the subject of conspiracy theories well before it opened in February 1995. But its debut complete with mysterious architecture, apocalyptic art, strange statuary and a dedication capstone emblazoned with Freemason symbols didn’t help matters.

For nearly a quarter century, conspiracy theorists, truthers, late-night television hosts and former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura have insisted that something nefarious is afoot on Colorado’s high plains. For most of that time, DIA officials viewed the perpetuation of these myths as an annoyance, according to Jeff Price, an aviation professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

But last fall, the airport embraced its reputation with a fun advertising campaign, developed with input from MSU Denver alumna Tracey Wright, DIA's executive travel and events planner, Price said.

"She's been a part of the conspiracy theory events, including the screening of the movie, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," he said.

Few people know the 52-square-mile airport better than Price, former DIA assistant security director and co-author of the new book, "Images of Aviation: Denver Airports from Stapleton to DIA." We caught up with the aviation expert, who debunks the DIA conspiracy theories and shares an eerie tale of his own. 

Conspiracy theory: DIA is home to secret “coffin tunnels”

Price: I may be partly responsible for starting one of the earliest conspiracy theories, which holds that DIA was built with a secret underground tunnel through which dead government dissidents were ferried down to NORAD headquarters in Colorado Springs. You might think, ‘Why would anybody claim coffins were shuttling around the airport?’ But the idea isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds. 

DIA was built with large vertical carousels designed to hold over-sized items like skis and golf clubs. When there was a maintenance problem in the early days, we had to quickly specify over the radio whether a normal or over-sized bag carousel was broken. So, we adopted a slang term – 'coffins' – for the oversized ones. Back then, pretty much anybody could monitor our radio frequencies and it wouldn’t be unusual to hear a radio call stating, ‘There’s a problem down near the coffins on carousel 10!’ To someone with a vivid imagination, I suppose it was only a short flight of fancy to reach a story of actual corpses being ferried around.

Related: Why do easily disproved conspiracy theories persist? Psychology explains 5 ways our brains are to blame

Conspiracy theory: DIA’s runways were designed in the shape of a swastika in a secret Nazi plot

Price: This conspiracy theory persists because the idea is so visual – anyone can look at an aerial photograph and say, ‘Hey, that kind of could look like a swastika.’ But here are the facts: The runway layout, approved by the Federal Aviation Authority, is the optimal design for enabling takeoff into and with the wind from different directions, depending on weather and flight patterns. I know, it’s not quite as interesting as a secret Nazi plot, but the truth often is quite boring.

Denver International Airport
Denver International Airport's runway layout, approved by the Federal Aviation Authority, is the optimal design for enabling takeoff into and with the wind from different directions. Photo courtesy of Denver International Airport.

Conspiracy theory: ‘Blucifer’ symbolizes the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse — Death 

Price: “Blue Mustang” has perhaps done more than any other feature at DIA to fire up conspiracy theories and rumors of occult practices. Admittedly, the origin story of the 32-foot, 9,000-pound sculpture with glowing red eyes (now known universally as “Blucifer”) is grisly: During construction, a portion of the sculpture fell on artist Luis Jiménez, severing an artery in his leg and leading to his death. Inevitably, the story of a satanic-looking horse sculpture 'killing' its creator was way too tempting for the tin foil hat brigade to ignore. But the sculpture’s story is really one of a talented artist who had a tragic workplace accident. And no, those glowing eyes do not signify satanic worship – they’re actually a tribute to the artist’s father, who worked with neon signs.

“Blue Mustang," a.k.a. "Blucifer," the 32-foot, 9,000-pound sculpture artist Luis Jiménez stands watch on the plains outside Denver International Airport. Photo courtesy of Denver International Airport.
“Blue Mustang," a.k.a. "Blucifer," the 32-foot, 9,000-pound sculpture artist Luis Jiménez stands watch on the plains outside Denver International Airport. Photo courtesy of Denver International Airport.

Conspiracy theory: DIA was built on the site of an alien landing

Price: This is a genuinely strange one. It revolves around a well-established rumor that the coordinates for the alien landing site in the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” point directly to the center of DIA. And – gasp! – if you look on Google Earth it will also show those coordinates pointing at the airport. But this is an Easter egg. I personally plotted those coordinates on an aeronautical chart, and they lead to an empty field about 11.5 miles northeast of DIA. I realize that’s still pretty close – and I still don’t know why the filmmakers didn’t use the actual coordinates of Devils Tower, Wyoming, which is the location used in the movie. Even in the 1970s when the movie was made, anyone with a globe could have figured that out. So, yes, I can maybe see why this conspiracy theory has stuck.

Related: All systems go for spaceflight

Conspiracy theory: DIA’s two murals are loaded with Illuminati symbolism

Price: DIA’s two giant murals by artist Leo Tanguma are often viewed as a prime suspect by DIA naysayers looking for evil intent. And that reputation exploded back in 2012 when Jesse Ventura brought his “Conspiracy Theory” show to the airport and stood, mock-horrified, before them. Cynics generally focus on a mural showing a gestapo-like soldier and frightened children, but that misses the point. Tanguma’s environmental mural series actually tells a hopeful story, and the initial depictions of war and pollution quickly give way to sunnier images depicting a utopian future. The work is even titled “Children of the World Dream of Peace” – hardly the stuff of globalist nightmares.

Kind of scary: "Children of the World Dream of Peace,” by Leo Tanguma in Denver International Airport
Kind of scary: "Children of the World Dream of Peace,” by Leo Tanguma in Denver International Airport's Jeppesen Terminal. Photo courtesy of Denver International Airport.

Conspiracy Theory: DIA is haunted

Price: Having pooh-poohed everyone else’s conspiracy theories, I do have an unbelievable tale of my own.

When DIA was being built, I was a security officer and occasionally patrolled the construction site, which held several abandoned mobile home parks. The area had previously been known for occult practices, including rumors of Satanic worship ceremonies, so it often felt a little eerie.

One evening, I saw a man walk into the mobile home we were using as an office. So, I pulled up my car and walked into the building, noting a fresh set of footprints in the dirt leading up to the steps. I searched the whole premises, but he was gone. The back door and windows were welded shut and there was no way out except for the front door, which I had my eyes on the entire time. Nobody could have exited without me seeing them. But still, he wasn’t there. And when I went back outside, his footsteps were also gone. Only mine remained.

I still get the chills now talking about it.

Related: New book on the history of Denver's airports shows how air travel transformed the city


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