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No room for error on Aspen approach

Approach at mountainous airport, pilots must fly precise path to avoid terrain

Published March 30, 2001 at midnight

Aspen demands perfection.

Pilots flying into the ritzy mountain hamlet must navigate a precise path or pull out fast.

The airport sits in the Roaring Fork Valley surrounded by breathtaking but perilous peaks.

Pilots who frequent Aspen say the approach is extremely tricky and there's no room for error.

"It's difficult to land at night anywhere, but it's especially hard here," said Dave Schurman, who regularly flies corporate planes in and out of Aspen. "You have a mountain to your left, a mountain to the right and then a little hill. It's something you have to practice in your mind over and over."

Aspen-Pitkin County Airport was one of the Colorado airports highlighted in a 1993 report by the federal General Accounting Office that cited the dangers of mountain flying, especially at night.

"Citing safety concerns, nearly every pilot and FAA and NTSB staff member that we interviewed told us that they would not fly into Aspen Airport at night under (Visual Flight Rules)," the report states.

"They stated that the risk is greater because higher altitudes decrease an aircraft's performance, weather conditions deteriorate with little warning, mountains limit pilots' maneuverability during takeoffs and landings, and the rugged terrain decreases the likelihood of conducting a safe emergency landing."

According to the report, from October 1982 to September 1992 there were 14 general aviation accidents within 15 miles of Aspen Airport. That meant a rate of 4.10 accidents per 100,000 operations, which was 78 percent higher than other mountain airports studied and three times as much as non-mountain airports studied.

The airport has been a continuing source of debate between Aspen residents who don't like growth and airport planners who worry about safety. In 1995, Pitkin County voters rejected by 2-to-1 a proposal to widen the runway to provide for safer service.

"The voters said no because they didn't want bigger jets coming in here," said Pitkin County Commissioner Nick Ireland.

In 1986, after extensive study by the airport, the FAA and the Colorado Department of Transportation, it was recommended that Colorado 82 be moved away from the airport runway.

Ireland said that the highway was realigned slightly to get it out of the "object-free zone," but it still leaves the highway within 500 feet of the end of the runway.

Aspen, Telluride and Eagle / Vail are known as the most challenging airports in the state. Terrain and quirky weather keep pilots on their toes, said Ronald Zasadzinski, a flight instructor who teaches mountain safety courses for the Colorado Pilots Association.

"The terrain that you're trying to avoid at night is invisible. It would be very difficult to see the mountainous terrain," Zasadzinski said.

Pilots flying into Aspen must descend steeply from about 14,000 feet to the airport, which sits at 7,815 feet above sea level.

Planes that are equipped for instrument landings are allowed to fly through cloud cover until they are 2,400 feet above the runway, Zasadzinski said. From that point down, the pilot must be able to see the runway.

On Thursday night, it's possible that the snowfall was light when the pilots first reported seeing the runway, but that it picked up in the intervening three minutes or so that it would take to descend the final 2,400 feet, Zasadzinski said.

At an airport like Denver International Airport, pilots could fly on instruments to within about 200 feet above the runway. Aspen's requirement is more challenging.

"It just means you have to have good weather all the way down from that altitude (2,400 feet)," Zasadzinski said.

The descent into Aspen is known as a step-down approach. From 14,000 feet, pilots then descend to 10,400. Then, they must drop down very quickly.

At that point, they must decide immediately if they can see the runway. Those who see it can land. Those who don't must abort.

"If the weather's right at the minimum (visibility), I think you'd have to say you're better off going somewhere else," said Paul Perkins, a charter pilot who frequently flies in and out of Aspen.

Zasadzinski checked weather reports for Thursday night and found that the lowest level of the cloud cover was 2,500 feet or higher, meaning the pilots should have been able to spot the lights of the runway.

"The big factor to me was that there was snow in the area. It seemed to be moving in and out. This is something you can't predict."

Pitkin County officials have long worried about the peril of flying into their airport at night.

In the late 1970s, after Rocky Mountain Airlines installed runway lights, Pitkin County imposed a curfew on general aviation, meaning only commuter airlines with scheduled flights could fly after 30 minutes past sunset.

That led to a standoff between the county and the FAA, which threatened to withhold funding if the curfew was not lifted. The county predicted its accident rate would jump 68 percent with night flying. The FAA said Aspen's accident history was similar to other mountainous airports and said the night restrictions "were not necessary for safety," according to the study.

Pitkin County has since allowed general aviation flights after dark, but only if the aircraft has special flight instruments and the pilot has completed at least one daylight takeoff or landing at Aspen in the prior 12 months.

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