by Nancy Christofferson
Despite having two airports in Huerfano County, some pilots end up landing just any old place they please. This has everything to do with looming mountains, tricky air currents and downdrafts, high winds and of course, mechanical problems, however, rather than a pilot’s penchant for different scenery.
The editor of La Veta’s Advertiser wrote enthusiastically in 1907 about the sighting of a aeroplane overhead and how someday planes would be as common as autos. In April 1920, he reported “Saturday was a gala day in La Veta for the first airplane which has ever attempted flights from this place carried a number of our citizens on a pleasure jaunt over the city.” That set back the adventurous $12.50 for a 15-minute flight.
But just six weeks later, another flier was not compensated for his landing near town. A flight from Pueblo, bound for Blanca in the San Luis Valley, was unable to handle the mountains and landed in the hill north of town.
This may have given the town fathers a grain of insight. This took a while to germinate, but in 1945, the Chamber of Commerce picked that same hill as a good spot for an airport. A visiting dignitary from the state Game and Fish Commissioner did not agree, apparently, and landed on Highway 160 instead.
Other sites were considered, but after about a dozen planes “landed and took off without difficulty” in a field on that hill one day in November 1949, the decision was made. The site was soon approved by the Civilian Aeronautics Board. Through the efforts of the Chamber and Rotary Club members, under the direction of James Filer, chairman of an ad hoc committee, the landing strip was built and finally completed in 1957.
This did not mean all pilots landed at the field, however. An Army helicopter, for instance, in 1958 favored Town Park for a landing. He was waiting, he said, for clear weather so he could make it over the pass. Another one, an Army helicopter, landed that year next to the depot, forced down by wind. Another occasion in 1958, was when a plane landed at the airfield all right, but not on purpose. The four occupants were uninjured and said the plane had been caught in a gust of wind and thrown to the ground.
In 1961, word went out of a plane crashing in the La Veta Pass area. Search parties went out but a snowstorm kept them from fully exploring. After three days, the plane and its occupants were found near Russell on the other side of the pass with all three aboard in good condition, especially considering the weather.
A pilot in 1967 crashed near the summit of the pass. He wasn’t hurt, but it took the state patrol and a railroad crew with a handcar to get him out of the mountains.
Another helicopter crash landed on the eastbound lane of Highway 160 in 1974. It contained four coast guardsmen and was forced to land when caught in a downdraft. The chopper burned but the men walked away.
Yet another helicopter, in 1978, was forced down near the summit of the North Veta Pass, but it landed safely, to the relief of its four-man Army crew.
In 1989 the Huerfano World reported the latest mystery was the discovery of a downed plane beside the road on the pass. It appeared to have collided with a car.
Not all planes came down in the La Veta area, however.
Another mystery was uncovered in 1938 by Paul Wolf and Joe Schmidt of the Gardner area when they found a biplane in the timber along the Medano Pass trail. The wings and fabric were shredded, they reported, but no pilot was found.
Then there was the Piper Cub J-3 that came down for some reason. It landed in an alleyway in Walsenburg near east 5th Street in 1947.
1969 was a rough year for pilots in Huerfano County. There were three crashes that spring, two with fatalities, but the third in less than two months deposited two survivors on the Robert Weston ranch northwest of Walsenburg. Four years later, Bob Meyer’s cow pasture near the Turkey Ridge road was the recipient of a plane that crash landed. An Arvada couple escaped injury but there was no report about the effect on the cows.
Just before that crash, a small plane was forced down in a snowstorm and landed on Highway 69 just south of the Rambler Motel and Restaurant.
In 1974, a glider made an emergency landing on the Walsenburg Golf Course while en route from Colorado Springs to Trinidad.
Two National Guard bombers collided in 1971 near the Cucharas Dam. Both pilots ejected successfully but the planes crashed and burned in the canyon, and set off forest fires in that remote country.
Quite a few less favorable results have occurred with crash landings in our mountains and on the plains of Huerfano County. According to a 1947 report, the worst crash was that of an Army plane that came down near the Rattlesnake Buttes, killing five.
Since then, there have been many fatalities, but possibly the worst was when a plane crashed into the West Spanish Peak and claimed six lives.