Visiting North America’s Highest Public-Use Airport

Colorado’s Lake County Airport is one for the bucket list, according to pilots.

Ask any pilot who has flown to Leadville-Lake County Airport (KLXV) in Colorado, and they will tell you it was one of the most memorable places they’ve landed. With an elevation of 9,934 feet msl, it is North America’s highest public-use airport. 

Airport manager Josh Adamson explained that Lake County is on many aviators’ bucket lists. Unlike many other airports, it offers visitors a document to commemorate their first visit. 

“We actually have people fly here from all over the world because they have heard about the ‘Certificate of Navigation,’ and they want it,” Adamson said. “So, we do those for free, and it is a fun service. And we sell a lot of shirts, hats, and coffee mugs too.” 

There are special considerations for pilots when flying to high-altitude airports. But Adamson said Leadville is not plagued by the obstacles of many other mountain-flanked facilities in the state. 

“We don’t have any of the [obstacle clearance] issues that Aspen has, for example,” he said. “We are not on the valley floor, but we have a pretty broad, open valley here where the airport is located. But actually, terrain wise, it is pretty simple to fly to Lake County Airport. A lot of people approach from the south, and you can fly down in the valley. Once they get here…, they are like, ‘Oh, that really wasn’t that bad!”

Adamson pointed out that while there may not be a box canyon or frequent turbulence when flying into Lake County, it still can be a challenging airport.

“The biggest thing to keep in mind is to check the DA [density altitude] because that gets pretty high up here in the summers,” he said. “A normal summer day here I would say is probably 68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit. If it is 72, you are usually looking at a DA at around 11,000, maybe getting into the 12,000 range. If we get any hotter than that, I’ve seen it higher—in the 13[000]s.”

A video published by the Colorado Department of Transportation provides an aerial glimpse of the facility and nearby terrain. There are several instrument procedures (RNAV) for KLXV, as well as a tailored departure procedure. 

Adamson, a transplant to the area originally hailing from Nebraska, said he is happy to educate transients on the abundant recreational opportunities nearby. One of the highlights of the airport’s central location in the state is  seven ski resorts within an hour’s drive, including Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, and Vail. 

“You fly to Leadville for what’s around because I think probably half of our county is public national forest land,’ he said. “So, there’s hiking, snowboarding, snowmobiling, skiing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, mountain biking, off-roading, and more. The Arkansas River starts here, which is a gold medal stream for trout fishing. Then there is also hunting around as well. If you like outdoor stuff, this place is mecca. Our area has it all.” 

The airport’s most noticeable aspect from an airplane is the imposing Rocky Mountains that surround it in the distance. Adamson said the state’s two largest mountains, Mount Elbert and the aptly named Mount Massive, are located in Lake County. In the lower 48 states, these two peaks are only bested by Mount Whitney in California. 

The area’s elevation is not only a draw for mountain climbers, hunters, and other recreationists but also for OEMs and other companies completing high-altitude aircraft testing. Adamson noted that the summer months are attractive for these parties to test the upper limits of aircraft performance. 

“This year was a little slower than years past, but [summer 2022] was busy,” he said. “We had Bell out of Canada, Airbus out of France, and Leonardo out of Italy up here for the span of three months, testing. We had four helicopters here testing at one point. Our starting elevation of 9,934 msl, coupled with [a] high DA, provides the companies a perfect test bed for performance over 10,000 feet.

Lake County Airport is a popular site for aircraft testing, especially helicopters. [Courtesy: Lake County Airport]

“Another key aspect is our weather. Most companies are looking for less than 3 knots of wind, and our mornings are very calm. Testing flights usually wrap up by 10 or 11 a.m. due to winds increasing and incoming afternoon storms. We have tested numerous other platforms [in addition to helicopters], including unmanned aerial systems (UAS), gas and turbine engines, mobile power/hydraulic/bleed air carts, side by sides, UTVs [utility task vehicles], and motor vehicles.

For aviators looking to undertake a new challenge with memorable options once on the ground, Lake County Airport is understandably a popular place. The county-run FBO at the airport offers fuel (100LL and jet-A), transient hangar space, and courtesy vehicles. The airport’s 6,400-by-75-foot-wide asphalt runway (16/34) and adjacent taxiway were fully resurfaced in 2020. A new taxi lane was built in 2023 to accommodate new hangar development.

“We own two hangars,” Adamson said. “One is 11,000 square feet that we have eight aircraft in right now, and a smaller hangar with two aircraft. And then we are looking at expanding hangar development for ground leases as well. Our close proximity to Summit County ski resorts makes [KLXV] a prime location to access these resorts via air travel at an affordable cost. A ground lease hangar would allow a pilot to keep their aircraft warm, dry, and free of ice and snow. Companies like NetJets often ask if we have hangar space during the winter months, so opportunities exist for revenue from storing transient jet traffic as well.”

Adamson concluded his summary of the airport with a short thought: “Check the DA and come get some good views!”


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