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Moon man re-opens airport: Neil Armstrong cuts ribbon at renamed Micetic Field

Special to the Planet

Published: Thursday, December 17, 2009 8:30 PM CST
In 1969, he guided the lunar module to the surface of the moon, but on Thursday he flew commercial. In 1969, he was first down the ladder, but on Thursday he let the other passengers off first. 

Then Neil Armstrong, once a strapping fighter pilot, now a 79-year-old with wispy white hair and a patterned cardigan, stepped off a Great Lakes flight from Denver and used giant novelty scissors to cut a blue and yellow ribbon.

He stood next to former mayor John Micetic, who helped get the airport started in the ‘80s. It was later announced that the airport would be renamed the Telluride Regional Airport at Micetic Field. 

The famously dicey runway had been closed from April 7 through Nov. 4 and smoothed out with dirt and rocks and $22 million, most of which came from grants. 

It was one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for the Telluride Airport, North America’s highest commercial airport, which finally got rid of its concave runway. After the final phase of construction is complete — Airport Manager Rich Nutall says they’re aiming for the end of next summer — the airport will accommodate commercial planes that can hold twice as many people as the ones that can land now. 

A private man, Neil Armstrong very rarely attends events like these, his wife Carol said. At a reception that evening with wine and cheese and chinking wine glasses, Armstrong gave a surprisingly moving speech filled with nostalgia for the old, quirky runway, which he always called “she.” 

“No one who had ever dealt with her could ever forget her,” Armstrong said. “Some called her the old 927, some called her other names.” 

Many Telluriders have love for that crooked old runway. Before it came in in 1987, built for $4.5 million, Telluride was about as hard to get to as the moon. The airport turned Telluride from just another Colorado mining town into one of those towns that seem to belong to the world, like Martha’s Vineyard or Key West or Aspen. “It put us on the map,” said Micetic. 

Partly because of the airport, Telluride is the kind of place where celebrities come and World Cup snowboarders race and an American legend like Armstrong goes to live out his walks-and-talks-and-eats-breakfast phase. And, 500 or 1,000 years from now, when people will no longer care about today’s political minutae, they will remember Neil Armstrong, and the time when Americans first stepped on the moon. And, in some footnote of some biography about the man who is our Columbus (except better, because Armstrong knew where he was going), it will note that he loved a small town high up in the San Juans, and the high-altitude runway that let him travel here two or three times a year from his home in Ohio. 

“She will still hold the high ground, she will still have the grand vistas,” he said. “Travelers on the great silver birds ... will still be welcomed by her, and they’ll be glad they came.”