Garfield County airport set to unveil upgrades |

Garfield County airport set to unveil upgrades

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Correspondent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Kelley Cox/Citizen TelegramHaley Patton, Jacob Patton, Carrie Patton, Teresa Olak, Claire Dziwisz and Karol Olak, all from Silt, explore the tarmac at the Garfield County Regional Airport in Rifle during an Oct. 23 open house. The airport is scheduled to reopen Nov. 18.

The Garfield County Regional Airport will unveil $47.3 million in improvements when it reopens later this month, including significant runway upgrades, but the airport, which can actually accommodate larger jets than can the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, remains a facility for private, general aviation aircraft.

In other words, commercial airlines won’t turn toward Rifle when the weather is bad in Aspen or, as was the case for four weeks that drew to a close on Saturday, when navigational equipment serving the Aspen airport is out of service.

The Garfield County airport, closed since April 5, is scheduled to reopen Nov. 18. It will remain a regional airport for charter and private planes, but its use largely reflects what’s happening in Aspen and at the Eagle County Regional Airport, according to Brian Condie, airport manager at Garfield County.

When air traffic is up in Aspen and Eagle, it’s up at the Garfield County airport, too, he said. Overflow general aviation traffic often uses the Rifle airport, and it’s an alternative for private aircraft when the weather at either of the two mountain resort airports is bad.

In addition, the Rifle runway can accommodate Boeing 737s – something the Aspen airport cannot do because of both wingspan and weight restrictions. Occasionally, business jets of that size do land at Rifle, Condie said.

Rifle is also open 24 hours a day, unlike Aspen’s airport.

“I think Rifle is an important airport to the region,” said Jim Elwood, aviation director at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, calling the upgrades at Rifle “quite a project.”

There was a time when some smaller commercial aircraft that served Aspen used Rifle in a pinch, according to Bill Tomcich, the resort’s liaison to the airline industry, but in the post-heightened security of 9/11, those days are long over.

It used to be possible to put passengers through security in Aspen, then board them on a bus bound for Rifle to get on a plane and take off when the weather was bad in Aspen, Tomcich said. That can’t happen now.

Without a commercial terminal and associated services at Rifle, it makes more sense to use Grand Junction or Eagle, anyway, he added.

Pilots who do make use of the Garfield County Regional Airport, though, will find its 7,000-foot runway has been leveled by lowering the east end about 7 feet and raising the west end about 14 feet. The change was made to address safety concerns; the previous downhill pitch of the runway contributed to planes overrunning the end of the airstrip. The slope of the runway at Rifle is now less than 1 percent over the 7,000-foot length.

In addition, the safety area around the runway has been expanded from 600 to 1,000 feet to meet requirements for the jets that are an increasing part of the airport’s users, Condie said. The expanded safety area created the need for the large retaining wall that is visible from Interstate 70, alongside the airport.

“We also have Colorado’s first perfectly smooth runway,” Condie said.

Pavers were able to complete the entire 7,000-foot stretch without stopping. A halt creates a joint in the pavement.

“When you’re going 140 miles per hour, you can feel every one of them,” he said. “There are no horizontal joints on this runway.”

An analysis of the new surface found two imperfections on the threshold, an area where planes aren’t supposed to touch down, and one on a side strip, but none on the runway area where aircraft wheels typically touch pavement, according to Condie.

The airport will also boast water and sanitary sewer system upgrades when it reopens, new paving on its parking lot and perimeter roads, and other improvements.

The Federal Aviation Administration is scheduled to replace the navigational equipment at the airport next year, Condie said.

The Glenwood Springs Post Independent contributed to this report.

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