A recent Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) report of a Learjet 31 altitude bust on departure from Denver’s Centennial Airport (APA) reminds all aviators that miscommunication, poor preflight planning and a loss of situational awareness can lead to serious mistakes. After takeoff, the two experienced Learjet pilots climbed to 10,000 feet instead of the 8,000 feet ATC had assigned. Also, because they were rushing the departure, they incorrectly set the aircraft’s altimeters before takeoff, which meant that a subsequent climb to 12,000 feet also involved an error, for a total of three altitude/altimetry errors within just a few minutes of departure.
Before takeoff, the two pilots decided that to reduce time spent with the aircraft operating on battery power in sub-zero ground temperatures (the Learjet 31 has no APU), the PIC would take care of checking the ATIS and picking up the ATC clearance while the aircraft was still inside the hangar. The PIC also wanted to spend minimal time on the ground after leaving the de-icing station at Centennial. The PIC entered 10,000 feet in the altitude selector rather than the initial 8,000 feet delivered by ATC. He also typed the wrong departure runway into the FMS and forgot to reset the altimeters. The SIC was not in the cockpit at the time and did not verify any of these settings once he returned from his preflight duties. The PIC also briefed the SIC that the first altitude was 10,000 feet. The standard instrument departure (SID) from APA clearly states 8,000 feet as the final altitude, with 10,000 feet as the altitude for departures from nearby Denver International Airport (DIA). The SIC never reviewed the SID before takeoff. After this incident, the company changed its SOPs to reflect the need for the SIC not to accept anything less than a visual review of the clearance copied by the other pilot. The SIC also admitted later that he should have checked the altimeter setting on his side, but that he failed to do so in the rush to get airborne.