DIA: 5 Things You Didn’t Know

If pressed, you could probably come up with some facts about Denver International Airport off the top of your head. The roof is a giant tent. It’s one of the busiest airports in the world. If you read Business Traveler, you might remember that it has been awarded the Best Airport in North America in both 2005 and 2006.

But you might not know that a plan to host a herd of live bison was dropped, partly due to fencing issues and partly because a 2,000 pound bull buffalo is too ornery to be good company.

Here are five other things you probably don’t know about DIA.

The art at DIA hasn’t been without controversy. Some people see Leo Tanguma’s mural, The Children of the World Dream of Peace, as a warning against environmental self-destruction; others think it’s sick and inappropriate.

1. The conspiracy theories are true. All of them.

Just kidding. Conspiracy theories have abounded since the airport’s beginning, and there’s enough of it in popular conversation and online to make you dizzy: Nazis, alien slave labor camps, freemasons, underground cities, UFO homing devices, the New World Order, even, on one or two websites, the Queen of England.

Granted, there are Masonic symbols on the time capsule, but the reference to the New World Airport Commission, according to DIA spokesman Steve Snyder, has nothing to do with the New World Order. “All they did was get together to plan and finance the events surrounding the opening of the airport,” Snyder said. “They do have underground tunnels here, and people let their imaginations go wild.”

I’ll admit that, with a little imagination, DIA’s airfield and terminal layout resembles the four arms of a swastika, but officials say that the uber-effective runway design allows for three simultaneous landings, even in poor weather, and has contributed to the airport’s reputation as the least-delayed airport in the nation for four years in a row (never mind the 2006 Christmas blizzard).

Yeah, but what about the 85-square-mile subterranean airport beneath DIA? “How can you have an underground runway?” Snyder asks. I’ve been wondering the same thing.

2. It’s big. Really big.

That’s probably not the most brilliant statement you’ve ever read, but you need to understand how big DIA really is. In terms of land size, DIA is the second-largest international airport in the world; almost 34,000 acres of land — 53 square miles —makes DIA roughly twice the size of Manhattan Island. It has more land than the city of Boston. Or Miami. Or San Francisco. DIA’s longest runway, at 16,000 feet (that’s more than 3 miles), is so long that a person standing at one end cannot see an aircraft getting ready at the other end due to the curvature of the earth.

It takes about 20 minutes to climb to the top of the FAA control tower, one of the tallest in the nation. The airport has 5,300 miles of fiber optic communication cable, longer than the River Nile. Amazingly, the copper cable, at 11,365 miles total length, would stretch from Los Angeles to Paris and back. Enough earth (110 million cubic yards) was moved during construction to cover 32 city blocks to the depth of one-quarter mile, about one-third of the earth moved while digging the Panama Canal.

It’s big.

DIA has collected somewhere around $15,000 (at a penny a wish, that’s 1.5 million wishes) since the fountain opened in 1998.

3. They’ll do anything to make a buck.

When I see money lying around I don’t stoop to pick it up unless it’s made of paper; the coins just aren’t worth my trouble. But DIA officials clearly feel differently.Each time they dredge the fountain for spare change they pull in a couple hundred dollars, which is used to maintain the airport’s numerous art exhibits. They’ve collected somewhere around $15,000 (at a penny a wish, that’s 1.5 million wishes) since the fountain opened in 1998.

But that’s pocket change compared to the revenue generated by DIA’s other financial pursuits. Nearly half of the land — about 25 square miles of it — is farmed; in 2004 wheat, corn, sunflowers and other crops generated $290,000 for DIA. Around 55 leased and city-owned oil and gas wells on DIA property, with, according to Snyder, about 20 new wells being drilled, bring in $2-$3 million each year.

4. They bury weird things for posterity.

A time capsule isn’t a modern idea by any means; the idea has reportedly been around for 5,000 years and ancient versions of DIA’s own time capsule were built into the walls of Mesopotamian cities (though the contents are likely to differ).

Some of the contents actually seem to make sense: some coins (a quarter and a penny) from the Denver Mint, local newspapers, Native American prayer baskets that honor Colorado’s first inhabitants, Colorado flags.

Then there are others. It really seems as if they included a Masons Grand Lodge Centennial Book — fitting for a time capsule bearing the Masonic square and compasses — for the sole purpose of getting the conspiracy theorists in a tizzy. The dictionary of the newest words of the 20th century is already hopelessly outdated (which is, I guess, the point), and unlikely to include words like badonkadonk or Stephen Colbert’s truthiness.

I think they have something with the credit card, though. I wish I could bury mine for hundreds of years.

5. Art really is subjective.

Ever wondered why the same incessant music has been playing in the walkway between the Jeppesen Terminal and Concourse A for 10 years? You know, the tribal chanting and whatnot? Because it’s auditory art. It’s likely to play its infinite loop for another 10 years, maybe longer, so get used to it.

In case you were wondering, the propellers in the train tunnels don’t harness the wind of the passing trains for energy — they just look pretty when they reflect the light.

DIA has the largest collection of public art in Colorado; the airport is filled with sculptures and mosaics and murals for the enjoyment of travelers willing to pause in their mid-layover rush.

There’s a beautiful indoor garden in the middle of Concourse C, and in the center of both the east and west baggage claims, poised in open suitcases, are twin gargoyles. Like all gargoyles, DIA’s (christened Mike and Amy by the staff) frighten off evil spirits with their grotesque features.

Some of the art hasn’t been without controversy: reactions to Leo Tanguma’s mural, The Children of the World Dream of Peace, which shows bodies in caskets, cities in flames and soldiers in gas masks, have been quite mixed. Some people see it as a warning against environmental self-destruction; some people think it’s sick and inappropriate.

And in case you were wondering, the propellers in the train tunnels are an art display called a Kinetic Light Air Curtain. They don’t harness the wind of the passing trains for energy — they just look pretty when they reflect the light.

Josh Bishop is a graduate of Metropolitan State College of Denver’s journalism program. He is a native of Michigan.

From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.