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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

Grand Junction Regional Airport celebrates 90th anniversary

Mar 22, 2021 04:12PM ● By Jan Weeks
The Grand Junction Regional Airport logo overlaid on an image of an airplane coming down the runway

GJT still flying strong

Ninety years ago, the first airplanes bounced down on a dirt landing strip north of Grand Junction. In 1935, seeing the potential that air traffic could bring to the town, Walter Walker—owner and publisher of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel—garnered support for what would become the first commercial airport on the Western Slope. Over the next few years, runways and taxiways bloomed where only sagebrush and cactus had been. 

In the midst of World War II, the U.S. Government allocated money to build a runway capable of handling large transport aircraft, including airlines. When the war ended, Western Airlines scheduled routine flights to and from Grand Junction to Los Angeles. It wasn’t long before United, Continental and Trans World Airlines wanted access to what was then known as Walker Field for their intercontinental routes. Monarch Aviation and the U.S. Weather Bureau (now known as the National Weather Service) moved to the airport in the 1940s.

Dick Pond’s Aeroplane restaurant and lounge provided a place for passengers to fuel up before and after a flight. Travelers and locals alike could count on good food, good service, reasonable prices and entertain themselves by watching planes land and take off through large plate glass window that overlooked the runway. Pond also catered the food for inflight meals back in the day.

The westward view from the airport’s tower, c. 1972.

Celebrity sightings

Ted Balbier, the airport's unofficial historian, spent 45 years working there—first as the head of maintenance and later as airport fire chief. During that time, plenty of celebrities passed through the former airport and the new Grand Junction Regional Airport. Balbier recalled meeting Wolfman Jack in the Aeroplane Restaurant. Comedian George Carlin and actor Lee Marvin also stopped there. 

Balbier recalled working one Saturday when James Arness of “Gunsmoke” fame walked up to him and asked, “Son, where’s the head?”

Puzzled because the airport boss didn’t work on Saturday, Balbier replied, “It’s his day off.”

Arness put his hand on Balbier’s shoulder and said, “The restroom, son. The restroom.”

Other notables included Ernie Banks, shortstop and first baseman for the Chicago Cubs; Catfish Hunter, who pitched for the Kansas City/Oakland Athletics; and “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron, right fielder for the Milwaukee Brewers and Atlanta Braves.

When interest in all things western skyrocketed after the release of the 1991 movie “City Slickers,” Southwest Airlines took advantage of the movie’s popularity to film a commercial. Some of the shots were filmed in Moab, but the final pieces were shot at the Grand Junction airport. Balbier recalled how tons of dirt and dozens of desert shrubs were trucked in to cover the runway so Jack Palance could sit on a saddle perched on top of a Southwest 737.

Expanding services

As air traffic through Grand Junction increased, so did the need for more amenities. Several commercial businesses moved in such as West Star Aviation, which services and repairs private planes and has the largest paint facility west of the Mississippi. FedEx has an office and terminal, flying packages to Colorado Springs, Memphis and Fresno. Several companies, such as Colorado Flight Center and Crestone Aviation, offer charter services, pilot training, aircraft cleaning and scenic air tours.

Perhaps the main attraction of the airport has been its access to skiing. Before Aspen, Eagle and Telluride built airports, skiers flying both commercial and private jets had to deplane in Grand Junction and rent cars or take shuttles to mountain destinations. Balbier remembered meeting Gerald Ford when he was on his way to Vail and Beaver Creek, during and after his presidency. 

“He was a very nice man, very friendly. He liked to chitchat and asked about ski conditions,” Balbier said. 

 Ford wasn’t the only president to come to Grand Junction. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush flew in, as did Bob Dole when he ran for president in 1980. President Barack Obama visited in 2009 to address health care needs at a town hall meeting held at Central High School. President Donald Trump also made a campaign stop here.

The City of Grand Junction used to run the airport, which included mowing grass and removing snow from runways, streets and sidewalks. Eventually, an airport board was created, consisting of three city council members, three county commissioners and one at-large member. Jim Spelman was named the first airport manager in 1974.

Big plans

There have been many airport directors through the years. The current director, Angela Padalecki, has been with the airport since 2018. Previously, she worked as director of airline affairs at Denver International Airport, but wanted the opportunity to raise her children in Grand Junction.

Padalecki has big plans for the airport. Recently, the abandoned half-building was razed and landscaped.

Future expansion plans include a new runway to replace the aging one. The new one will parallel the present one about 600 feet north and 1,000 feet west. The construction will have no impact on current operations. The existing runway will become a taxiway, about half as wide as it is now.

“Virtually any aircraft can land here. Air Force One has landed multiple times. We can meet all expected future needs,” Padalecki said.  

Padalecki is also working to bring nonstop service to and from San Francisco to supplement the seasonal nonstop trips to Chicago’s O’Hare field and the year-round Allegiant flights to Arizona. In the future, she’d like to see Grand Junction become a hub for an airline instead of a spoke. She envisions it becoming a connecting airport that also offers 20 nonstop destinations instead of the eight it currently offers. 

Though COVID-19 impacted travel significantly, traffic has bounced back and Padalecki hopes to return to pre-pandemic levels.

From a dirt strip in a small town to an expanding travel destination, Grand Junction Regional Airport has come a long way and is going even farther.