Centennial Airport: From open prairie to economic driver

Centennial Airport's history ran alongside rise of Denver's south metro area


As the story goes, a businessman drove a shiny, black car to his downtown Denver office, and when he walked back to the car that afternoon, he found a large scratch in the door. Around the early 1960s, that was enough for George MacKenzie Wallace to plan to move his office to a location with more space for parking.

He set out to buy two acres of land in the southeastern part of the Denver metro area, but a reluctant seller wouldn't break up a 40-acre parcel. That land sat near what was becoming Interstate 25 (a stretch completed in 1963) and East Belleview Avenue. With the 38 extra acres, Wallace carried out his vision for a working environment that would eventually become the Denver Tech Center, one of the first suburban-office parks of its kind in the nation.

It wasn't long before Wallace saw the need for a general-aviation airport to serve the growing area — he helped push for a solution in what would become Centennial Airport.

The general-aviation airport, now one of the nation's busiest, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, capping off half a century of advancement alongside the south-metro area in which it plays a central role. The airport sits at 7800 S. Peoria St., just south of East Arapahoe Road and southeast of what's now the Topgolf entertainment complex, near the middle of Centennial.

Here's a look at the highlights from its beginnings to today.

Beginnings in the 1960s

• In 1960, the Federal Aviation Administration and Arapahoe County begin planning for a proposed reliever airport to ease congestion at Stapleton International Airport, the former airport that served Denver. The Stapleton area since redeveloped into retail and a residential neighborhood.

• The FAA and Arapahoe County officially announce the proposal for airport development in 1963. Construction begins in 1967 with $1.6 million from the Federal Airport Aid Program for the purchase of 380 acres of land.

• That August, Lou Clinton, of Clinton Aviation, signs a 30-year lease, becoming the airport's first fixed-base operator. Emily Howell, who would become the first woman captain of a scheduled United States commercial airline, becomes head of Clinton's flight-training program.

• The Arapahoe County Airport — Centennial Airport's original name — officially opens May 12, 1968. Local newspapers report more than 20,000 in attendance. Aerobatic pilot Dick Rutt cut the first ceremonial ribbon with the wing tip of his plane. At the time, there are 98 aircraft based at the airport.

• In 1969, aircraft-parking areas and connecting taxiways expand. The airport acquires an additional 404 acres of land and begins adding a crosswind runway. At the time, 165 aircraft are based at the airport.

On the rise in the 1970s

The airport's first firehouse is built, and the crosswind runway is completed in September 1970. In 1971, the airport acquires more land for a 1,000-foot extension of its current runway, building a parallel runway and adding a parallel taxiway.

Construction begins on the airport's first permanent tower in 1972. At this point, 226 aircraft are based there. A dedication ceremony is held for the new tower in 1973.

• Wallace is appointed to head the new Arapahoe County Airport Executive Management Committee, which was in charge of airport operations, general management and development of additional facilities, in 1973.

• The Columbine Airport, located in the Littleton area, closes in July 1973.

• The air-traffic control tower is selected as the FAA Rocky Mountain Region Terminal Air Traffic Facility of the Year in 1974.

• The Denver Tech Center, located to the northwest, adds more office, residential, retail, hotels and infrastructure throughout the decade.

• The Arapahoe County Public Airport Authority is created during a public hearing held June 9, 1975, under the Public Airport Authority Act, making the airport a separate legal entity. Arapahoe County transferred the title to the airport land and improvements to that new body.

• Wallace formally resigns as director of the airport's Executive Management Committee in 1979.

• That's the peak year for aircraft operations, with an average of 1,189 operations (total takeoffs and landings) per day, totaling 434,264 for the year.

Changes in the 1980s

• In 1983, the control tower becomes a 24-hour facility. Planning for “Project 85,” the airport's long-range development plan, begins.

• The airport officially changes its name in 1984 to Centennial Airport, a name adopted by the Airport Authority to reflect growth, and as a hat tip to Colorado's nickname, the Centennial state.

• Douglas County receives representation on the Airport Authority Board in the form of three newly added members in 1984.

• A formal dedication for a new control tower and administration complex is held in 1985.

• With 351,856 total aircraft operations and 926 based aircraft, Centennial Airport is ranked as the 11th busiest airport in the nation among all airports, including general aviation and commercial, in 1985.

Tumult in the 1990s

• Challenges with residential encroachment, as well as arguments over commercial-airline service proposed by Texas entrepreneur John Andrews, would reach both the Colorado and U.S. supreme courts. The airport's annual federal funding would be suspended after the board refused to lift its ban on scheduled-passenger service — in other words, commercial-airline flights, like those on a major airline, such as Southwest Airlines.

Forward in the 2000s

• The airport finds relief through a deal with the federal government that restores annual federal funding for maintenance projects.

• Robert Olislagers, the airport's current executive director, is hired.

• “By far, my favorite moment at Centennial Airport was in 2002 when our communities got together and, with the support of the Colorado congressional delegation led by then U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, we managed to carve out legislation that settled the airline issue here at the airport,” Olislagers said. “It was a huge win for the airport and our communities. Our civic leaders, citizens and the airport got on the same page to do something extraordinary that had never been done before or since. It goes to the power of presenting a united front.”

Going strong in the 2010s

• Centennial Airport marks its 50th birthday in 2018 debt-free.

• Total aircraft operations in 2017 are about 340,000, and based aircraft total about 1,000.


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