Fuel and weather suspect in Aspen GIII accident

 - October 3, 2007, 11:28 AM

The NTSB’s recently released factual report on the fatal crash of a chartered Gulfstream III at Aspen (Colo.) Airport (ASE) last March 29 does not provide a determination of cause. However transcripts of the cockpit voice recorder, ATC and preflight FSS briefing, coupled with the Safety Board’s interviews with ATC personnel and others in its investigation to date, clearly indicate that the crew was pre-occupied with several vital issues that may turn out to be factors in the probable cause determination, which is still several months away.

According to the Safety Board, the pilots were aware even before takeoff from Burbank, Calif., that the weather at ASE was marginal and deteriorating. During the flight, the crew expressed concern that if they didn’t make ASE on the first approach, they would have to divert to Rifle because of their fuel situation. (Rifle is 43.9 nm from Aspen.) The crew also recognized that they were closing in on a Stage 2 night curfew, effective 30 min after official sunset, 6:58 p.m. on the day of the accident. The airplane crashed four minutes after the curfew was in place–at 7:02 p.m.–killing the two pilots, the flight attendant and all 15 passengers (AIN, May, page 1).

The pilot was also told by the FSS briefer during the preflight briefing that a notam had just been issued, saying that “circling minimums are not authorized at night.” Receiving intense investigation by the NTSB is why that notam wasn’t received by the tower at ASE; the varied interpretations of the notam by air traffic controllers and others; the importance of another, ostensibly clearer notam issued 24 hr after the first one; and even whether or not the notam applied to the Gulfstream flight, considering its time of arrival over the IAF and the reported VMC weather at the time the approach began.

The following weather forecast for ASE was given to the pilot during his FSS briefing: between 1 p.m. and 7 p.m., winds 330 deg at 10 kt; visibility greater than six miles; showers in the vicinity; 3,000 ft scattered ceiling, 5,000 ft broken. Temporary conditions included wind variable 10 kt; gust to 15 kt; visibility three miles; light snow showers; ceiling 2,500 ft broken, 5,000 ft overcast.

N303GA was owned by Hollywood producer Andrew Vajna. It was registered to Vajna’s Airborne Charter and operated by Avjet Corp., both of Burbank, where the IFR flight originated with a takeoff at 2:38 p.m. local time. The GIII made the short hop to Los Angeles, landing at about 2:50 p.m. to pick up passengers before departing for Aspen at approximately 4:17 p.m. (5:17 p.m. Aspen time).

In the flight plan, the pilot had given an en route time of 1 hr 35 min for the flight from LAX. If accurate, that would make the aircraft’s ETA at Aspen 6:46 p.m., about 12 min ahead of the curfew. The curfew was definitely on the pilot’s mind. At the runway hold line on the taxiway three minutes before takeoff, the pilot said to LAX local control: “We have a curfew at Aspen.” ATC advised the pilot that the Gulfstream would be “number two or three” and that there should be minimal delay. About two minutes later, N303GA was cleared to position and hold on Runway 25L, then cleared for takeoff shortly afterward.

At 6:36 p.m., when the airplane was about 30 nm west of ASE at FL 210, the pilot checked in with ASE Approach and indicated he had ATIS Hotel (scattered clouds at 2,000 ft, ceiling 5,500 ft broken, 9,000 broken; wind 30 deg at four knots; visibility 10 mi; landing Runway 15).

The CVR transcript starts at about 6:30 p.m., approximately 30 min before the crash, with the copilot asking the pilot “what time is official sunset.” The pilot replied, “6:28. So we get 30 min after sunset. So 6:58, about seven, so seven o’clock.” To which the copilot responded, “Ah, seven is good enough, yeah.” At this time, N303GA was cleared direct to pitman intersection, direct Red Table VOR (DBL), the IAF, and then direct Aspen.

A couple of minutes later, the CVR records the copilot asking the pilot if he wants some food, followed by the sound of a chuckle. The pilot responded, “Sugar to help me calm down.” The copilot chuckled again and said, “Yeah.”

The crew appeared unconcerned when an ATC call authorizing a descent to FL 270 at 6:35 p.m. referred incorrectly to the Gulfstream as “Citation 3GA.” ATC tapes indicate the crew responded to the clearance with “two seven zero, three Golf Alpha.” On the CVR, the copilot laughed and said, “Citation.” The pilot said, “You should say Gulfstream and make sure that’s the same.” The copilot responded, “Okay, ah on next call I’ll straighten him out,” followed by a chuckle. “Well, I’m just saying if there’s a Citation out there,” commented the pilot. “I didn’t think of it,” said the copilot.

A couple of minutes later, at 6:37, the airplane is cleared to descend to FL 210 and the copilot reported, “Fuel quantity…5,100.” The pilot responded, “Probably gonna make it a visual… If we don’t get the airport over here we’ll go ahead and shoot that approach.” The pilot continued, “We’re not going to have a bunch of extra gas so we only get to shoot it once and then we’re going to Rifle.” The NTSB said the airplane had 12,175 lb of fuel at takeoff.

Three minutes later, at 6:39 p.m., the pilot commented, “Well it’s looking okay, huh?” The copilot replied, “Eh, looking not bad from here. 60 miles. Don’t worry…yeah…hopefully.” Aspen ATIS Hotel was heard being received on the copilot’s channel.

At 6:43 p.m. a discussion of weight-and-balance followed:
Pilot: “Oh, we were supposed to do a weight-and-balance, huh?”     

Copilot: “No, we didn’t.”

Pilot: “We should have. Well, don’t worry about it now. . .”

Copilot: “I won’t open the door if we see a suspicious individual on the ramp” (a possible reference to an FAA official doing a ramp check?).

The aircraft took off 13,925 lb below maximum allowable ramp weight and was within c.g. limits, according to the NTSB.

A minute later, the CVR picked up a Challenger requesting one more approach to Aspen. One of the Gulfstream pilots asked ATC if he was practicing or did he miss an actual. ATC replied that it had missed and that there were two other airplanes on approach in front of the Gulfstream. The copilot told the pilot, “He missed,” followed by an expletive from the pilot and “that’s no good” from the copilot.

About 15 min before the crash, while descending to FL 190 on vectors for approach sequencing, came the following exchange:
Pilot: “Where’s that [expletive] highway? Can we get down in there? Can you see?”

Copilot: “I’m looking, I’m looking…I…no.”

Pilot: “Can’t really see up there. I got it.”

Copilot: “Oh ah...I can see it.”

Pilot: “Can’t really see up there, can ya?”

Copilot: “Nope, not really.”

Pilot: “God [expletive].”

Copilot: “I see a river, but I don’t see nothing else. . . I see some town over here, so I assume the highway [presumably State Highway 82] would be going . . .”

Flight attendant: “Are you scared?”

Pilot: “Well, I hope we make it. Somebody just missed.”

Copilot: “[expletive].”

Attendant: “I don’t want to hear that. Why did you tell me? Why didn’t you say, ‘No, I’m not scared?’”

Pilot: “Well, I’m not scared.”

Attendant: “No. I’m not scared.”

Pilot: “I’m not scared, we just . . .”

Copilot: “I’m not scared, just cannot make it.”

Pilot: “Yeah, we don’t have enough gas to go hanging around. I mean we’re gonna have if we can only do one [approach] and then we gotta go to Rifle.”

While the pilots were looking for visual references, ATC made a blanket broadcast that a Citation 550 had the airport in sight at 10,400 ft msl (2,585 ft above ASE’s elevation) and was making the straight-in approach. Upon hearing this, the Gulfstream copilot said, “Ah that’s good,” and the pilot remarked to ATC: “We’re 3 Golf Alpha. I can almost see up the canyon from here. I don’t know the terrain well enough or I would take the visual.” Radar indicated the Gulfstream was at FL 190 and 15 nm west of ASE.

Aspen tower continued to provide altitude and heading instructions to N303GA to position the airplane for vectors for a straight-in for the VOR-DME/GPS-C approach procedure. Meanwhile, in the cockpit at 6:48 p.m., the CVR picked up the pilot declaring, “There’s the highway right there.” Then there is some confusion between the pilots:
Copilot: “…kay, set you up on the approach?

Pilot: “…kay.”

Copilot: “All right, ’bout sixteen four” (a reference to the published 164-deg final approach course). Apparently the copilot did something else, judging from the pilot’s response: “What, what are you doing? Wait, wait, wait, wait.”

Copilot: “Three six zero one sixty four. Wrong knob, eh sorry.”

Pilot: “Ah yeah. Can you see up there yet at all?”

Copilot: “Mmm…no.”

The discussion about what they can see and cannot see continued for another couple of minutes, including another exchange on Rifle with the pilot saying, “We’ll shoot it from here. I mean we’re here but we only get to do it once because it’s too late in the evening then to come around [an apparent reference to the curfew] and the other one is . . .” The flight attendant interjected, “Not enough fuel.” There was more discussion in the cockpit about which aircraft made it in and which didn’t.

The flight attendant and copilot chatted about who brought what clothing, with the attendant saying, “I have a bag with my cosmetics here, thank God. I know I’d frighten anybody in the morning. You know.” This is followed by the sound of laughter. “I’ve got to go buy a whole load of liquor. They’re [passengers] drinking everything.”

N303GA was now 10 min from disaster.

As the aircraft was cleared to FL 160, the pilots started their landing checks, during which there was a question about the synchronizers:
Copilot: “Engine synchronizer, would you like off?”

Pilot: “Well, just read the checklist. What’s the checklist say?

Copilot: “Yeah, synchronizer off.”

Pilot: “Okay, it’s off.”

ATC reported at 6:53 p.m., “Attention all aircraft, last aircraft went missed.”

Pilot: “[expletive]”

Copilot: “What?”

Pilot: “He went missed.”

Copilot: “That’s not good.”

ATC asks N303GA to “maintain slowest practical speed for sequence.” A Learjet behind the Gulfstream was given the same instructions. A Challenger announced it was on the missed approach. The Gulfstream pilot remarked, “The weather is going down. They’re not making it in.” According to ASE’s ASOS, visibility deteriorated rapidly, from 10 mi at 6:55 p.m. to 1.75 mi by 7:12 p.m.

At five miles from the IAF, ATC cleared N303GA to cross DBL at or above FL 140 and cleared the Gulfstream for the VOR-DME-C approach. It was 6:56 p.m. and Aspen tower made a blanket announcement that ATIS India was current: Visibility is now reported as 10 mi in light snow; few clouds at 1,500, ceiling 2,500 broken, 5,500 broken.” More important, for aircraft approaching from the north, the visibility north was given as just two miles in snow showers.

N303GA was cleared to switch to the tower frequency and the pilot heard the controller asking Challenger N527JA, another aircraft in front of N303GA, if it had the airport in sight. “Negative,” came the answer. Gulfstream N303GA was then cleared to land. Meanwhile, at 6:58 p.m., the Challenger ahead was within 1.2 nm of the airport at an indicated altitude of 9,800 ft when it declared it was breaking off the approach.

At 6:59 p.m., the Gulfstream pilots lowered the gear and the flaps to the landing position. The flight attendant asked, “Are we clear?” The pilot answered, “Nah, not yet. The guy in front of us didn’t make it either.” A few seconds after 7 p.m., the flight attendant remarked, “Snow.” The pilot said, “Okay I’m breaking out.” Then he asked Aspen, “Are the lights all the way up.” The controller responded, “Affirmative, they are on high.” At this time, N303GA was 3.4 nm from the end of Runway 15 at 11,000 ft. The pilot reported the runway in sight at 7:01, just 2.9 nm from the runway at 9,400 ft.

On board the airplane at this moment, the CVR picked up a configuration alarm that continued to sound for nine seconds. An electronic female voice called out, “One thousand,” then “nine hundred” and “Eight hundred,” after which the pilot said, “Where’s it at?” The CVR picked up the final few seconds of the fatal flight:
Female electronic voice: “Six hundred.”

Copilot: “To the right.”

Pilot: “To the right.”

Copilot: “Ah ref.”

GPWS male electronic voice: “Five hundred.”

Female electronic voice: “Five hundred.”
Copilot: “Ref plus five.”

GPWS: “Sink rate.”

Female electronic voice: “Four hundred.”

GPWS: “Sink rate.”

Copilot: “Plus ten.”

Unidentified rumbling noise continues to end of tape.

GPWS: “Two hundred.”

Unidentified high-pitched noise.

GPWS: “Bank angle”

Sound of grunt.

According to Aspen tower controllers, about 30 sec before it crashed, the Gulfstream became visible through snow showers about a mile north of the runway and at 8,100 ft msl. The airplane was in an “extreme left bank, about 45 deg,” with its landing lights shining directly into the tower. Seeing the airplane’s altitude and its steep bank, a controller asked nobody in particular, “What’s this Gulfstream doing?” Noting the airplane was rolling rapidly to the left, the controller then burst out, “Oh my God, he’s going to crash.” The Gulfstream’s microphone must have been keyed, because the last transmission to Aspen Tower contained unidentified background noises and the sounds of “voices screaming.”

 At 7:02 p.m. N303GA smashed into the terrain west of the Runway 15 centerline, about 100 ft above the airport elevation of 7,815 ft. The NTSB said the aircraft initially hit the ground with the left wing, which was in a 49-deg down attitude.
Pilot Robert Frisbie had logged a total of about 9,900 hr TT, with 1,475 of them in the GIII since obtaining his type rating in January 1990. Copilot Peter Kowalczyk was reported to have 5,500 hr TT, with 913 in the Gulfstream II and III. He obtained his type rating in the GIII in February. Toxicology testing of the two airmen produced negative results.

After the accident, Avjet’s director of flight operations issued a memorandum prohibiting night operations at ASE.