Aspen Pilots Want to Improve Airport’s Safety Record

Credit: Photo by Nik Wheeler/Corbis via Getty Images

An October 2018 opinion piece in the Aspen Times began with an ominous statement; “The Aspen Airport is rated the most dangerous in the United States.” The airport has been the scene of several high-profile fatal accidents. 

In 2001, a Gulfstream III approaching Aspen’s (ASE) Runway 15 after dark struck sloping terrain just short of the threshold. The impact and post-crash fire claimed the lives of all 19 people aboard. In February 2022, the crew of a Hawker 800 attempted to depart Runway 33 with a gusty 25-kt. tailwind, despite the aircraft’s maximum tailwind limitation of 10 kt.  The Hawker sailed off the end of the runway destroying the aircraft. Luckily there were no fatalities. 

Accidents aren’t limited to jets. In July 2021, a Beechcraft G36 Bonanza departed Aspen VFR on a delivery flight to Des Moines, Iowa. The pilot in command held type ratings in a few turbine aircraft, but records could not identify any recent mountain flying experience in a piston airplane. After departure, the Bonanza climbed to approximately 10,100 ft. MSL (3,300 ft. AGL) before turning southeasterly. The NTSB believed the pilot planned to head toward Independence Pass before heading east. Flight through the pass would have required a climb to just over 12,200 ft. MSL. For some unknown reason, while climbing at just 200 fpm through 11,300 ft., the Bonanza turned east, which brought it face-to-face with 13,000-ft. peaks. The Bonanza struck terrain at approximately 11,245 ft. killing both occupants. 

Experience has taught local pilots the many challenges of operating from Aspen’s 8,006-ft. runway snuggly nestled between peaks climbing to nearly 14,000 ft. both southwest and northeast and 11,000 ft. on the approach to Runway 15. With high terrain in every direction and an operating control tower, ASE is a one-way in (landing Runway 15) and one-way out (departing runway 33). With a field elevation approaching 8,000 ft., pilots quickly learn the importance of precise performance planning. On a warm summer day, density altitudes can easily climb into the five-figure range. Strong gusty winds can also test a pilot and an airplane’s metal. 

In a recently completed review of National Transportation Safety Board accident data, Aspen pilot Barry Vaughan combed the Board’s database for local accidents, some that date back almost 60 years. Vaughan, a retired attorney, is chairman of the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport FlightOps Safety Task Force announced on Dec. 7, 2022, by that County’s board of commissioners. A dozen volunteer pilots are lending their combined problem-solving skills to support a common mission, “maximize safety and reduce aviation accidents and incidents at the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport (KASE) and associated airspace.” Aspen is home to about 90 aircraft, including a dozen jets.

Task force members’ experience levels run the gamut from private pilots to flight instructors, charter, and large business jet pilots. A few of the better-known task force members include Daniel Baker, founder of FlightAware who sits on GAMA’s executive committee and Tyson Weihs, founder and former CEO of ForeFlight. Weihs is a member of the NBAA board of directors and sits on GAMA’s executive committee. 

While some might scoff at volunteer pilots--especially those with no formal accident investigation training--being able to create suggestions to improve Aspen’s safety record, experienced pilots know the best practical safety training at any challenging airport often comes from local aviators. Vaughan said, “We’re going to listen to ideas from anyone about how things could be done better and how we could reach out to pilots who fly in here, often infrequently, to help them be better, safer, more proficient pilots,” said Vaughan. His survey of NTSB records discovered more than 40 accidents, most of which were linked to pilot error. Few of those accidents occurred with a locally based pilot in the cockpit.

The task force began its work in December 2022 with a few simple suppositions, like looking for obvious trends that might emerge from past accidents. “We’re trying to get our arms around the facts first,” Vaughan said. Simple things like, “How many accidents involved controlled flight into terrain, or how many involved low-time pilots, or pilots with low time in type? How many involved weather, and how many were Part 91 or Part 135 operations?” Vaughan emphasized that “the possibilities should not be limited by the poverty of my imagination. One thing I do know is that pilots love to get training, they love to be safe, they love to be proficient.”

Another direction is trying to partner with organizations that also focus on flight safety, like NBAA, AOPA, the FAA, GAMA and the ASE tower controllers.

The task force also plans to look at programs created at other challenging airports to improve operational safety. “These might be suggestions we post at the FBO; it could evolve into a video that AOPA runs on its website,” Vaughan said. None of the recommendations will become regulatory according to Vaughan. He believes success will only come if the task force’s operational suggestions evolve into things pilots want to do.

The task force will be looking at whether technology could be helpful someday. The single instrument approach into Aspen brings small aircraft down to circling minimums of 2,000 ft. AGL and jets to 3,100 ft. AGL. A straight-in RNP approach to Runway 15, currently only available to pilots who complete special training at FlightSafety or CAE, offers a Decision Height of 537 ft. AGL.

Vaughan said the task force is working an aggressive schedule that expects to begin reviewing practical suggestions through the end of February and finalize the most useful ones during March. After presenting the task force’s best recommendations to the county board of commissioners in early April, they expect to begin implementation in late April and May. “If anything good comes out of this, it will be because 11 accomplished local pilots rolled up their sleeves, thought through the problems and reached out to our aviation partners to create plans that we can use to help make us all better pilots,” said Vaughan.

To offer the Aspen task force your ideas, contact Barry Vaughan at [email protected].