Flying Into Aspen
It is 10 am on a November morning. I’m the pilot in command of a G200 enroute to Aspen, Colorado. The weather is lovely over Denver as we approach the mountains to our west, but there are cumulous build ups over the front range, and we can see that they cover most of the way in. We check weather in Aspen 30 minutes away and they are reporting better than 8000-foot ceilings and 10 miles visibility with winds from the south at 10 knots gusting to 15. Sounds good so far but the TAF forecasts occasional snow showers throughout the day. At 20 minutes from our proposed arrival time we are in the cumulous build ups and the ride is pretty rough. Moderate turbulence and rime ice are the norm now. When we are about 10 minutes from Aspen, we begin to pick up the ATIS. The ATIS is reporting snow showers with visibility at ½ mile in heavy snow and indefinite ceiling. Winds have shifted to the North and are 15 gusting to 25 knots. Classic Aspen. We check with controllers, and they tell us these conditions could last a while, so we make the decision to divert to Rifle. The passengers are not thrilled, but they understand.
On another occasion we arrived with a 90-degree crosswind directly across the runway at about 15 knots. It wasn’t the wind that concerned me on this approach but rather the snow blowing across the runway. At times we could not make out the runway. During the winter months, white-out conditions can happen with little to no warning.
Fast forward to another flight, this time in the afternoon during early summer and we are departing from Aspen. We have 8 passengers, this time in a G-IV. All departures are from Runway 33. Winds are forecast to be from the North at 17 knots gusting to 28. We taxi out and as we approach the runway, the windsock and current ATIS special report show a completely different story. Winds from the South at 20 knots gusting to 30, a 10-15 knot tailwind. The tower tells us to pull to the side and hang tight. 15 minutes later the winds have shifted to match the forecast and we were able to go.
Aspen is a favorite destination for aircraft owners and charter clients due to its beauty and great skiing during the winter months. But it is one of the most challenging airports in the US due to rapidly rising terrain on all sides, weather that changes drastically in literally minutes, high elevation which creates high density altitudes that reduce aircraft performance capabilities and high levels of private aircraft departures and arrivals. It is a place where you get the EGPWS for terrain and windshear and TCAS (because there is a jet taking off from the runway you are approaching to land on), at the same time.
The point to this article is to encourage you, whether you are a pilot, the Chief Pilot, or a flight coordinator to understand that getting into and out of Aspen safely requires a little more planning and forethought than most other airports.
Fuel planning can be critical both when arriving as well as when you depart. This is a place that you don’t want to get caught short. When you depart you want enough to get you home, but your takeoff limits may prevent you from being able to take as much as you might like. A fuel stop may be required if the temperature and winds don’t go your way. Play the what-if game and have an alternate to your alternate.
Flight coordinators, watch the weather and anticipate diversions. You should be playing the what-if game as well. What if they divert to Rifle? Oh, Rifle is down too. Eagle? Grand Junction? Denver? You may be scrambling to get ground transportation for your passengers and crew and possibly hangar space for the aircraft. Another consideration for flight control is sundown. You don’t want aircraft landing there after dark. Remember too that due to shadowing from the mountains that sunset actually happens a little before official sunset.
Management pilots, do you train your pilots for the rigors of mountain flying? If possible, you should send them with someone who has been there before on their first flight to Aspen, Eagle, Telluride or similar. Do you pressure them into taking too high of risks when flying to these destinations? Or, do you support them when they call it? As a pilot, it is difficult to make that decision when the passengers and/or management are pressuring you to press on. Pilots should know that the Company has their back when they make the decision to divert.
Remember the Challenger trying to land in crazy winds and the G-III shooting the approach after sunset? Both ended in fatalities. It only takes seconds for a flight to go from routine to a disaster. Don’t get killed while doing stupid shit in an airplane. It is NEVER worth it.
Aspen is an AMAZING destination! The approach to Runway 15 is breath taking. In the fall when the Aspens are turning, they appear to be pure gold and, in the winter, it is a beautiful white wonderland. Do your due diligence and planning and don’t take foolish chances and it is truly a rewarding destination. Ya’ll be safe out there!