Look, Up in the Sky! It’s a Bird – and a Plane!
Military Aircraft Capture Leadville’s Attention
By Kathy Bedell, Leadville Today
“That’s classified, Ma’am,” the pilot grinned, replying to Leadville Today’s last question during a special interview with one of the US Marine Osprey pilots during their re-fuel stop at the Leadville/Lake County Airport on February 2, 2021. The crew’s final destination might not have been dilvulged by Marine Sergeant Willard, but where the MV-22 aircraft had been that day was clear. All anyone had to do was follow the neck-cranes and eye-shields generated by the two tiltrotors crescendoing up the Arkansas River Valley, shattering the silence of a winter day in the high country.
“They went right over our house, and glasses rattled in the cupboard,” wrote one Lake County resident Sharon Galey.
“Thanks, they were so close to my house I wondered if they were crashing!” wrote LT reader Robbie Seibel.
The message was clear, these were the type of military birds that were heard before they were seen, as their three-bladed proprotors slice through the thin mountain air with great velocity – and volume.
“I couldn’t hear nothing,” said German Aguirre Blanco, the 20-something Leadville Airport Assistant Manager as he pumped approximately 600 gallons of jet fuel into each of the military vehicles.
To Be Seen, Not Heard
However, to see them up close is to witness advanced aircraft technology on a ginormous scale. The Osprey’s unique tiltrotor design allows them the efficient power of an airplane combined with the maneuverability of a helicopter.
According to Wikipedia: The Osprey is the world’s first production tiltrotor aircraft, with one three-bladed proprotor, turboprop engine, and transmission nacelle mounted on each wingtip. It is classified as a powered lift aircraft by the Federal Aviation Administration. For takeoff and landing, it typically operates as a helicopter with the nacelles vertical and rotors horizontal.
Once airborne, the nacelles rotate forward 90° in as little as 12 seconds for horizontal flight, converting the V-22 to a more fuel-efficient, higher speed turboprop aircraft. For storage, the V-22’s rotors fold in 90 seconds and its wing rotates to align, front-to-back, with the fuselage. Due to the requirement for folding rotors, their 38-foot (11.6 m) diameter is 5 feet (1.5 m) less than optimal for vertical takeoff, resulting in high disk loading.
Most missions use fixed wing flight 75% or more of the time, reducing wear and tear and operational costs. First brought onto the military scene in 1951, these birds established the FIRST tactical helicopter squadron for the Marine Corps and the Ospreys have been flying proudly under the Semper Fi motto ever since.
Bird Is The Word in Leadville Today
So what were the Osprey military crews doing in the Colorado high country last week?
“We came up here to conduct some high-altitude training and support some training with the Space Force and some Army exercises,” explained Sergeant Willard as he stopped into the office to pay the fuel bill and pick up some souvenir t-shirts from North America’s highest airport for himself and the crew.
The day’s training operations began in Colorado Springs, including a brief “classified” crew pick-up stop before following the undeniable pathway also known as the Arkansas River as it carves out a natural run-up to Leadville’s airstrip.
“The altitude above 9,00 feet was pretty tough on them, but we made it okay,” the Sergeant reported. However, it was a few impressive tactical maneuvers that caught many Lake County residents’ attention.
“I saw the way they moved and wondered what in the world is that?” one LT reader said. While LT’s media crew wasn’t able to get any of the Ospreys’ fancy moves on camera, it was impressive to see the aircraft up close. The video includes footage as the Ospreys took off from America’s highest city to destinations unknown: “That’s classified, Ma’am.” Salute!
North America’s highest airport is no stranger to high-altitude training. It’s one of the top attributes the facility is known for regionally. Whether its military aircraft like the Osprey or the impressive Erickson Crane from the private sector, testing how aircraft respond and function at over 10,000 feet in a controlled environment is an important component in their technological advancement of aircraft.
While the Leadville/Lake County Airport has undergone several impressive upgrades in the 21st century, its long-term economic viability is – once again – coming into focus, along with consistent management concerns and challenges with Advisory Board continuity.
It has been almost a year since the last Airport Manager left, tallying ten who have held that position since the new millennium. LT has interviewed and written about nearly all of them. Ironically, it’s a 20-something millennial who is running the show in Leadville Today as the facility’s Assistant Manager German Aguirre Blanco has maintained his position for more than two years now. He is a responsible, competent, and bi-lingual Lake County High School graduate.
Unfortunately, that stability does not seem to be part of the “strategic master plan” for the future as outlined in Tuesday’s Airport Advisory Board meeting. The meeting speaks for itself. In fact, at post time LT was still unsure if there was a quorum of board members present for discussions to take place.
Publisher’s Note: For anyone interested in serving on the Airport Advisory Board please contact Bob Hartzell via email: firstname.lastname@example.org. It should also be noted that the airport is no longer run nor managed under the Public Works Department, a change formalized more than a year ago.
Attention, Lake County Commissioners
As the latest round of discussions about whether Leadville’s Airport should become an industrial airpark (the last study now more than two years old and there’s that little sliver of land that still hasn’t been resolved since 2017), or become a spill-over parking lot for Vail and Aspen’s rich-and-famous jetsetters, there is one stark fact that should remain keenly in focus for each resident and every visitor.
The Leadville Airport continues to operate as the landing pad for Flight-for-Life transports while the hospital construction plays out in perpetuity. Until that situation is made whole, until the hospital helipad is done, LXV acts as the evacuation point for medical personnel. When critical patients get air-lifted from Leadville, it is no longer from the hospital. That’s been the reality for well over a year now. Patients now get transported up to the airport, where there has not been a manager for more than six months, to a facility that is no longer operating under the Lake County Public Works Department which runs the plows to clear the landing pads. This “temporary” situation has been in motion for more than a year. Keep in mind, this is during a global pandemic, and during a time when local search and rescue efforts have reported a “200% increase” in backcountry rescue missions, which often call for assistance from air-vac teams.
It might just be time to put your tray-tables in a locked, upright position. Because when it comes to professional courtesy for elected officials, the end of the runway is in plain sight. It’s time to taxi out some truth, give flight to a management plan that is based on the reality of what’s actually happening with aviation in central Colorado, and re-fuel some solid, consistent leadership out at the airstrip at North America’s highest airport!
Airport Stories from Leadville Today
Fall Colors Fly Over From Leadville Airport
Reporting the Progress Along The Way
Snow Artist Turns Runway Into Snow Drawing
It was just last year in January 2020, before the Coronovirus turned the world on its head, that Leadville Today hosted international Snow Artist Simon Beck for a 14-day visit to Lake County. During his visit, he created one of his biggest snow drawings to date turning the Leadville Airport runway into a huge snow-laden showpiece for his one-of-a-kind snow art. The airstrip had been closed that winter due to delays with the runway upgrades, so the huge area had not been plowed. Mother Nature showed up to provide the snowy canvas. With some help from some snow shaders – the first time in his career Simon Beck had utilized this more group-oriented approach – the end results were beautiful and seen by passing pilots before the wind took it all back just a few days later!
Erickson Crane High Altitude Testing 2012