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Airplane Pilot Group on a Mission to Curb Crashes In and Out of Aspen

Aspen Airport

Airplane Pilot Group on a Mission to Curb Crashes In and Out of Aspen

Pilots will tell you that flying into and out of Aspen can be dangerous and so does the data.

“Over the last four decades, there have been over 40 accidents — all involving private, non-airline aircraft — that caused substantial damage or the complete loss of the aircraft in the vicinity of ASE (Aspen-Pitkin County Airport). ASE’s challenges arise from factors like the airport’s altitude, its surrounding mountains, its sloping runway that requires most aircraft to land to the south, and takeoff to the north, wind currents, etc.”

That observation was made in the Airport Advisory Board’s “common ground recommendations” adopted by the Board of County Commissioners in December 2020. The recommendations were the fruits of nearly two years of work and public feedback missions led by the vision committee, which, in November, unanimously agreed to the formation of what is called a “flight operations safety task force.”

Last week, the Pitkin County commissioners approved the vision committee’s recommendation for a task force, a collection of 12 seasoned pilots with either local connections or local homes, aimed at recommending measures to increase safety and reduce accidents at the Aspen airport. Their emphasis will be on general aviation.

“It’s a real opportunity for the local pilot community to help in airport affairs,” Roaring Fork Valley pilot Barry Vaughan, who chairs the task force, told the county commissioners. “Airport politics are convoluted and complex, and the pilot community, often perhaps at least from one perspective, isn’t heard much. And, this is something that shouldn’t be controversial. It’s something everybody can get behind.”

Vaughan noted the Federal Aviation Administration’s authority when it comes to regulating airspace, pilot conduct, and licensing, for instance.

“What can the local community do?” he asked.

The answer, he said, is having the task force’s pilots — by using their connections and resources in the aviation field — craft measures the airport advisory board would first review before advancing to the Board of County Commissioners for its approval, he said. The task force ideally would present its initial measures and suggestions to the advisory board this spring, he said.

“These pilots … will not be making any commitments on behalf of the county,” Vaughan explained, “but what they’ll be doing is reaching out to our potential partners in the aviation community and discussing amongst themselves ideas that we can come up with that on a voluntary basis, if pilots get involved, can help make our airspace safer.”

The backgrounds of the group’s pilot advisors run the gamut, he told the board.

“We’ve got representatives of different echelons of flights levels. We’ve got it all covered,” he said, ticking off the names of Daniel Baker, founder of the aviation tracker called FlightAware; Bruce Gordon and Gary Kraft of locally-based EcoFlight; retired commercial pilot Capt. Brett Detwiler; engineer and private pilot Peter Hutter; Mayo Aviation pilot William Landis; developer and private pilot John McBride; investment adviser and pilot Walter Obermeyer; airline transport pilot Mike Solondz; engineer and private pilot Steve Vance; and Tyson Weihs, who is a commercial pilot and founder of ForeFlight, an app for pilots.

“I think it’s good mix of people,” said Commissioner Patti Clapper, adding that, during her career at Aspen Valley Hospital, “I spent too much time dealing with first-hand and meeting with families of victims of incidents at the airport and actually more surrounding our airport. I think this is a great opportunity for us to really look at safety.”

This year alone has seen four runway incidents involving private aircraft at Sardy Field that temporarily closed the airport. There were no fatalities or major injuries, but there was property damage. Two of those runway incidents — on Feb. 21 and Aug. 15 — cost county taxpayers $517,546. The airport also is trying to recoup the expenses from the aircraft owners and their insurers.

The February crash involved a Hawker 800XP business jet that overran the runway on the north side of the airport, rupturing the aircraft’s fuel tanks that spilled some 1,200 gallons of jet fuel on the ground. The aircraft also was totaled.

“A third-party crane and operator was contracted for removal of the aircraft from the runway safety area before the facility could re-open for operations,” according to a supplemental budget request from airport director Dan Bartholomew to the county board. “In addition to the costs incurred for soil remediation and crane services, additional costs were tabulated to account for other resources, including regular and overtime personnel costs for Airport and Public Works staff who responded to the incident.”

The August incident was when a Cessna Citation 560 business jet ran off the runway as it was landing, spilling 220 gallons of jet oil and damaging several airfield lights and signs. Much of the oil was washed away by rain, but “mitigation of the contaminated soil required the services of a third-party contractor,” said Bartholomew’s request. “The majority of the costs to the county resulting from this incident — for which reimbursement from the aircraft owner’s insurance is being sought — is for airfield lights and signage, along with the costs to remediate contaminated soils resulting from this incident.”

The most recent fatal general aviation accident originating from the Aspen airport — on July 3, 2021 — and was due to pilot error, according to a preliminary investigation report from the National Transportation Safety Board. The final report has not been completed.

Two New York residents were killed when one of them, the pilot of a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza, abandoned the pre-approved instrument flight path and departed under visual rules, crashing the plane near Midway Pass, which is in the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness. The plane was about 20 miles outside of Aspen, en route to Iowa, at an elevation of 11,500 feet, when it crashed into a mountainside, the report said.

The challenges posed by Aspen-Pitkin County Airport have generated such dubious distinctions as being among WorldAtlas.com’s “America’s 6 Scariest Airports,” which noted the March 2001 tragedy involving a Gulfstream attempting to land in Aspen, crashing into Shale Bluffs.

“In 2001, a chartered plane crashed, killing all 18 people aboard. In the wintertime, Aspen, Colorado, sees a large influx of tourists keen to hit the slopes. But, the surrounding mountains demand a steep take-off and approach angle. All pilots flying in and out of Aspen-Pitkin must have special certification to show they are up to the task. In addition, the snowy and windy conditions can wreak havoc,” WorldAtlas.com said.

Or, take Fodors, which offered in its November 2021 “World’s 13 Most Dangerous Airport” piece: “Another scary airport in the U.S. is Aspen/Pitkin County Airport (elevation 7,800 feet) in the popular ski town of Aspen. Multiple crashes have happened due to ever-changing wind conditions, low visibility, and mountains on either side. It’s definitely one of the trickiest runways to land in the country.”

The ultimate goal of the flight operations safety task force, is to address what its name implies: “Unlike typical business or governmental objectives, the success of this mission would ultimately be measured in the negative, by a reduction in the number of accidents and incidents occurring at KASE and in the associated airspace and in the reduction of the number of concomitant accident/incident reports by the National Transportation Safety Board,” said a memo to the commissioners ahead of last week’s meeting.

By: Rick Carroll I Aspen Times I December 12, 2022

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