Many of my childhood memories are of airplanes, airports, and traveling. As with most children’s experiences, we do not appreciate them until we are much older. I am very fortunate and blessed to have experienced significant milestones in history.
Both of my parents were born and raised in Denver. They met each other on a blind date and graduated from South High School. They have a history in the Denver area and at the Denver Municipal Airport. This is the airport where my mom went on her first flight in a DC 3 tail dragger to visit my Dad in the Air Force stationed in Texas. The drive from her Wash(ington) Park home to Denver Municipal Airport took much longer than the trip would today. Later this would become Stapleton International Airport where my Dad would fly for the original Frontier Airlines and retire 30 years later.
Stapleton Airport was as familiar to me as any other landmark in the Denver area. As a small child I knew how to get there, I knew where the employee parking was, and I knew how to catch the employee bus to get to the airplanes. Security was not an issue and non existent. We would board the employee bus that would take us directly to the plane on the tarmac. We did not have to enter the terminal, get our luggage checked or go through any screening. More than likely I would recognize the pilot and he would help us board the plane via steps and not a jet way. The Pilots would help board the passengers and load luggage on the airplanes. This was a normal duty for Pilots. Another normal was the required dress code. Females had to wear nylons and closed toed shoes and men had to wear jackets and a tie. To us the meals were gourmet, with linens, silverware and a bottle of wine on each tray.
Some memories are vague. Perhaps I remember the excitement more that the event. I recall the old tower that was the original tower at Denver Municipal Airport. It was very exciting when the “big” tower was opened. I remember going to the top and feeling dizzy because we were so high in the air.
There was excitement about an airplane called the “747”. This new, huge plane was the latest and greatest in travel. We arrived at the hanger off of Smith Road to tour the plane. As a child I was bored standing in line and could not keep my boredom under control. Once entering the plane, I too became excited to think that one day I could possibly travel in a plane like this. I was used to traveling in a prop jet or Convair 580. As we walked through the plane a Pilot and Stewardess (politically correct name in those days) were being married in the upper portion (what we called the bubble) of the aircraft.
Often my Dad would ask my sister, brother and I if we wanted to go on a trip with him. This trip would be from Stapleton to Grand Junction, Montrose, Gunnison and back to Stapleton. It was a trip that we could go on after school and return almost before bedtime. We would take our homework with us and do it as the 580 bounced through the sky. At Montrose Dad would get off the plane, unload the luggage, help the passengers deplane and then buy us a hamburger. When we flew over our home, Dad would announce over the intercom that we were flying over our small, rural town. This was our clue to look out the window. Dad would turn the landing lights on and off and Mom would then turn our deck light on and off. We then knew that Mom was watching us fly over.
It was a natural progression for me to pursue flying and I entered into the Aerospace Science program at Metropolitan State College. Looking back it is incredible to think we found it normal that part of our College routine was to fly to Colorado Springs for breakfast or fly to Boulder for a concert. However it was a milestone in our education when we had to fly from Arapahoe Airport (now called Centennial) to Stapleton. It was a course requirement to land at Stapleton, taxi to Colorado Air Center and then turn around and fly back to Arapahoe. We had to complete one flight during the day and one flight at night. We did this in a small Cessna 152. I can not imagine doing this today at DIA.
I worked for Bill Daniels in the 1980’s. Bill would invite employees to take trips with him in his Learjet if he had room for additional passengers. My oldest son was around 16 months old and I was pregnant with my second. I thought why not. It took us 27 seconds to depart from Stapleton and clear the first mountain range. It took us less than 2 hours to land at Los Angeles. I never had experienced this kind of speed in an aircraft. Bill was generous and very understanding with a 16 month old that cried the entire time. I worked in the executive offices at Daniels and Associates and helped coordinate sending the jet to pick up Scott Hamilton after winning the gold at the Olympics. I remember the reception at Stapleton and how exciting it was to meet an Olympian. The Learjet that I flew in is now hanging in the concourse at DIA. It was the first non-commercial flight that landed at DIA during its official grand opening.
There were many monumental events at Stapleton that we experienced. Seeing the 747 for the first time, the landing of the Concord, the new tower, the opening of a new concourse, the opening of the expansion of the runway that went over I-70, my Dad flying Captain with Emily Howell (the first female commercial pilot) on her inaugural flight, the Pope landing for World Youth Day, the shut down of the original Frontier Airlines, and the closing of Stapleton to name a few. The closing was nothing like we had ever seen before, the last flight departing and the convoy of tugs, equipment and trucks as they headed to DIA. It was a very cold February night and the stream of lights seemed never ending. We realized we were watching history and what we knew, and grew up with, was gone.
I worked on the ramp for Federal Express for awhile. I had learned weight and balance during my Aerospace education and calculated the loads for the small aircraft that delivered to rural areas. It was a Saturday morning routine to go for breakfast at Sapp Brothers after our shift. I am now working in almost the exact same location at Conservatory Green that I was on the ramp with FEDEX. I am also making the same commute that my Father did some 45+ years ago.
Airline families were a very close group. More often than not these families came from a military background. They supported each other and helped each other. Dads that were Pilots were gone a lot. There were tough times with furloughs’ and changes as the industry became deregulated. The unions went on strike and there were labor disputes. Gas prices escalated in the 70’s and airline travel became unaffordable and there were more layoffs. But the families stuck together and helped each other. These were the families that were our neighbors, went to school with, attended church with, traveled with and are still connected to. This is the same spirit I have seen with the families in Stapleton today. They are a community of strength that supports one another and has a commitment to their families and neighbors. Stapleton International Airport may no longer be, but the history of the Stapleton spirit is alive and strong.