Aspen jet crash shows why it’s among nation’s deadliest airports

AP Photo/The Aspen Times, Leigh Vogel

A private jet crashed while attempting a second landing in Aspen this afternoon, at least one of the three people on the plane died.

The aircraft was a private Canadair CL-600-2B16 Challenger 601-3R from Mexico. It was making a stop in Aspen and was to return to Mexico this evening.

Comedian Kevin Nealon tweeted: “Horrible plane crash here at Aspen airport. Exploded into flames as it was landing. I think it was a private jet.”

Aspen is one of the least-favorite airports for many airline pilots.

Normally, planes land against the wind, which makes their groundspeed slower. But windspeed was changing rapidly in Aspen with gusts as high as 25 knots (28 mph), a condition which makes it more difficult for planes to slow down for landing. The wind was out of the northwest, but flights at Aspen were landing to the southeast.

The controllers realized the conditions required changing runways halting landing operations, but they wanted to get three planes that were already on approach on the ground first.

The flight path of N115WF at Aspen Airport (from FlightAware.com)

Wind conditions were worsening quickly. Several pilots had reported wind shear on approach. About 15 minutes before the pilot’s first landing attempt, another pilot had reported picking up 5 knots of speed in the gusty conditions. Eight minutes before the attempt, another pilot reported he lost 10 knots of speed while landing. And two minutes before the first landing attempt, a third pilot reported he gained 12 knots, and, finally, one minute before the landing attempt a fourth pilot reported gaining 20 knots of speed, after maneuvering to try to lose altitude.

Thirty seconds after that information was relayed to the pilot of the doomed jet, the pilot announced he was aborting the landing, received instructions from ATC and attempted another landing. Typically, controllers would change the approach to a more favorable runway (the same one, but from a different direction), but there was no choice at this airport.

The pilot would have had to come from over the distant mountain shown in this image from the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated a 2001 jet accident in which 18 people died.

National Transportation Safety Board photo

After being cleared to land on the second attempt, there was no further communication between the tower and the pilot.

Here’s the final minutes of the flight (via LiveSTC.net). The tape has been “telescoped” from real time. The call sign of the plane is “five whiskey foxtrot.”

  1. Listen ATC communications with N115WF

    January 5,2014

Related: In Aspen, a Difficult, Unforgiving Runway (Los Angeles Times) (h/t: Bill Catlin)

Landmark Accidents: Aspen Arrival (Aviation Safety)

Difficult Approach: Flying the LOC DME Rwy 15 into Aspen, Colorado (Boldmethod). (h/t: Joshua Wyatt)

  • A Pilot who flies into Aspen

    Bob,

    First you say the controllers wanted to change the runway after three planes landed, then you say that planes can only land one way because of the mountains. Get your story straight. Aspen is a one way in, one way out airport. With the rare exception of a small, single engine airplane, all aircraft land to the southwest on runway 15, and depart to the northwest on 33. This article is poorly written, confusing to the lay person (non-pilot), and misleading.

    • http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/ Bob Collins

      James Fallows, who seems to know a thing or two about flying into Aspen, seemed to like it well enough that he linked to it and called it “informative.” An NWA pilot with thousands of hours had no problem with it and identified three violations that would’ve eliminated the approach if it were NWA. Sorry you were confused by it. I figured the picture of the big giant mountain in the way of an approach to 33 would explain the scenario. I’ll be happy to eliminate the confusing reference.

      My name’s Bob. What’s yours? Thanks for stopping by. What kind of equipment do you fly?

      • L. Foonimin

        Being a little touchy there Mr. Collins? Having flown into Aspen several times I too can attest to the article being “poorly written and confusing”

        • http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/ Bob Collins

          What part is confusing you? Maybe I can explain it better.

    • FlyLear

      Actually Bob didn’t say these controllers wanted to change the runway. He just generalized that ATC would normally change approach directions due to bad conditions, but then he also added that it wasn’t a possible scenario at this airport. You might want to improve your reading comprehension first before criticizing someone on their writing skills.

  • Jack

    Bob – thanks for the explanation of the incident. When I heard something happened yesterday, I knew that I could count on you to give an explanation that a layman would understand.

    Thanks again for your reporting on all things aviation related.

  • Kim Campbell

    Accident site in your photo is incorrect, aircraft crashed onto the runway, and ended up 3/4′s of the way down just off to the right side.

    The crew of the Challenger should not have attempted a landing, the tail wind exceeded the limitations of the aircraft. (Challenger series of Jets 600-605 is 10 knots maximum tailwind).

    • http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/ Bob Collins

      As I indicated in the piece, the photo is from the NTSB investigation of the Gulfstream crash a few years ago .