Pilots Address the Hazards of an Aspen Arrival

 - February 3, 2014, 1:00 PM
Aspen Airport: pretty in summer and potentially dangerous in winter.

The January 5 crash of a Bombardier Challenger 601-3R during the crew’s second attempted landing at Aspen Pitkin County Airport (ASE) has prompted pilots to question both their own limitations and the difficulties involved in landing at the Denver resort. Even under visual conditions, mountains that rise 5,000 to 6,000 feet above field elevation make Aspen a one-way-in, one-way-out airport: land on Runway 15 and depart from Runway 33.

AIN asked some pilots who regularly operate there to share their wisdom, on condition of anonymity. “One clear day I asked the tower if I could circle to 33 [in a Challenger] just to see what it was like,” one pilot said. “It was scary. Steep banking at high altitude introduces the potential for an accelerated stall, for one thing. It’s a risky maneuver under the best conditions in a high-performance jet.”

The lowest landing minimums at ASE are available only to pilots who complete special FAA-training. Landing gear and flaps must be extended before the final approach fix at Aspen if the airplane is to get down in time and still be slow enough for touchdown. The final approach slope is slightly less than seven degrees, about equal to that for the UK’s London City Airport.

One operator said he does not care about approach minimums. “If we don’t see the runway by the DOYPE {{SMALL CAPS}} fix [5.5 nm from the end of the runway], we execute a missed approach.”

Another pilot said frontal passages create turbulence across the mountains so severe at times that an approach is not even possible. “The tailwind issues at Aspen are a very important consideration,” said another pilot.

Between October and February, northwesterly winds can often exceed the tailwind limitation for many aircraft. On January 5, the wind was as strong as 28 knots from the northwest just before the ill-fated Challenger’s landing. All the operators AIN spoke to have a policy that prohibits them from conducting night operations at Aspen.


I flew into Aspen regularly for 26 years, many, many weekends every year, starting before they had an approach and would clear you to SKIER intersection at 16,000 feet to hold. Through all these years, we were operating Lear 24D’s, Lear 35’s, Lear 36’s and Falcon 20’s, both Model C andD. The only game in town was to descend to 16,000 and when you arrived over SKIER, you either had a good visual on the airport or you started holding and requested clearance to your alternate.
Years later when the VOR approach to RW 15 was commissioned, we flew it religiously. The minimums were not based on how low you could go without hitting rocks, they were based on how low you could go, lose an engine and climb out safely.
The approach was unique, because unlike most VOR approaches, you had better be configured to land when you crossed the VOR, then fly Ref plus 10 to minimums. If you were Ref plus 20 and broke out right at minimums, you were not going to get on the runway where you should. Throw in a legal tailwind, plus ice and snow on the runway and you were set up for disaster.
On a training flight into Aspen one weekend, I put a high time, skilled captain, in the left seat for his first flight into Aspen with weather. I explained to him, since the weather was right at minimums we should be fully configured and Ref plus 10 crossing The VOR. He grinned and commented, “I have probably flown with you on over one hundred VOR approaches and I have never seen you slow up to Ref plus 10 this far out.” I said, “Just do it this time for me, I’ll explain later.” As it turned out, I didn’t have to explain later. They were right on minimums, and I was seconds away from calling a missed approach when I got the runway? I called “runway twelve o’clock.” The captain answered, “Going visual.” He went off the gauges and looked up out in front of the windscreen, straight ahead and said, ” Where’s the runway.” I leaned forward and with my index finger pointed down and said “Right there.” He commented, “Oh shit! now I know what you were trying to tell me.” And yes, we did land, he was a talented aviator.
I have landed on RW 33 numerous times, but never with low ceilings or low visibility, only during VFR conditions with high winds.
We never had a problem, but we respected the fact Aspen was not your average airport.

J. Huddleston

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