High Flying

Fall Line
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How safe is flying into mountain airports? That's the question that was raised in the aftermath of a crash that killed all 18 people aboard a chartered Gulfstream jet as it tried to land at Colorado's Aspen-Pitkin County Airport last March. Commercial flights, which haul the vast majority of skiers into mountain resorts, are much safer than charters and private planes-and less risky than driving. But with popular ski-resort areas experiencing double-digit increases in air traffic, the aviation industry is looking at what more can be done to lower the risks of mountain flying.

The Aspen crash occurred close to nightfall, with snow flurries and fog drifting across the runway. The two pilots had landed there before, and, according to radio transmissions, believed they had the runway lights in view. What they may have seen were the headlights of rush-hour traffic along busy State Highway 82, which parallels the runway. In any case, the plane slammed into a hillside some 500 yards short of the runway, bounced across a culvert and narrowly missed dozens of motorists.

Aspen is known among pilots as an airport to be reckoned with. It has a relatively short, 7,000-foot runway, an altitude of 7,815 feet and is ringed by ridges. Landing requires planes to make steep descents, like dropping into a giant punch bowl. The Aspen airport's characteristics aren't unique; the ill-fated flight from Burbank, Calif., wasn't the only mishap at mountain airports last winter. And the issue of pilot perception versus reality isn't limited to charter operators.

In mid-March, a TWA jetliner bound from St. Louis to Yampa Valley Regional Airport near Steamboat Springs, Colo., mistakenly landed at a much smaller airport, 20 miles west in Craig. The MD-81, which was carrying 116 passengers, touched down safely but ran off the end of the runway. The Craig airstrip, never designed for commercial jets, is a short 5,600 feet, whereas the Yampa Valley runway is nearly twice that length. National Transportation and Safety Board reports say the approach area was obscured by blowing snow and cloud cover. The two airports look visibly similar-in fact, each has a power plant next to it.

Mountain flying demands a high level of pilot skill, constant attention to topography, familiarity with the performance of the aircraft at elevation and an eye for changing weather conditions. In Colorado, which has more than 400 public and private airports and landing strips, air crashes kill an average of 17 people a year, according to the state Department of Transportation. Typically, the accidents involve private planes and pilot error. But weather and terrain also play major roles. "You can be 300 or 400 feet above a runway on your approach and have obstructed visibility from snow flurries," says Vern Foster, a retired United Airlines flight instructor who teaches a mountain-flying course. "The problem is that if you look hard enough, you'll see what you want to see, not what's really there."

It's not so daunting, however, for commercial pilots, such as those who fly with Air Wisconsin, which operates as United Express. These pilots fly routes throughout Colorado (and to most major skiing destinations statewide); they are familiar with the airports, and they have senior ranking. "Air Wisconsin is a well-run outfit," Foster says. "They do as many as 22 round trips a day out of Denver to Aspen in ski season, and I would go with those pilots in any condition that makes them feel comfortable."

Most of the airline pilots who fly direct routes from out-of-state cities are required by the FAA to have both simulator and flight experience (under the direction of a senior check-flight airman in the cockpit) before they are rated to fly unassisted into specific mountain airports, according to Capt. Patrick Somers, a United Airlines pilot based in San Francisco. "We play things very conservatively," he says. "If we haven't flown into an airport for a while, we do a great deaof advance preparation. The captain has sole discretion to make a go or no-go decision, and the airline never challenges a scrubbed flight that involves safety considerations." Somers, who flies Boeing 757s into destinations such as Denver and Anchorage, says he realizes cancellations are frustrating, but the alternative-flying in marginal conditions-could be worse. And, he adds, "if circumstances arise for any reason to the point that the safe completion of a flight is a question, then we will delay the takeoff or divert to an alternate airport."

Each mountain airport in the Rockies has its own challenges for approaches, landings and takeoffs, and the facilities vary greatly. Aspen, Eagle/Vail, Jackson Hole, Wyo., Bozeman, Mont., and Friedman near Sun Valley, Idaho, have staffed control towers, though nighttime operations rarely extend past 10 p.m. Conversely, there are no towers at Yampa Valley, Telluride, Gunnison, Montrose and Durango in Colorado. What this means is that takeoffs and landings of aircraft that are on instrument flight plans (including all commercial and many private planes) are sequenced hundreds of miles away by the Denver Air Traffic Control Center. "We would definitely like to see more towers," says Capt. Ron Fines, who flies Dornier 328 turboprop planes for Air Wisconsin and chairs the safety committee of the airline's pilot association. "It would make these airports more efficient and safer if every pilot could talk to a controller within a four-mile radius, especially on weekends when air traffic is heaviest."

There are industry watchdogs who contend some mountain airports are being stretched to their capacity-or soon will be-not only because of an increase in direct commercial flights, but also from a new category of quasi-chartered aircraft known as "fractionals." Operating similarly to the real-estate time-share industry, fractional-based aviation companies allow passengers to buy blocks of flying time and go wherever, whenever they wish. If you buy a sixteenth share-a typical unit-then you might pay $500,000 for use of an $8 million plane. While that's still a rich man's game, the industry is evolving so quickly that one company is promising to build a five-passenger jet for $900,000, which could make fractionals available to a mass market.

Aspen and Friedman are both seeing days in which their tarmacs are so packed that they have to divert incoming aircraft to other fields. In the past two years, Eagle/Vail has experienced an average traffic increase of 10 percent per year. During President's Day weekend, in the heart of the ski season, the deck is parked wingtip to wingtip with 100 or more private jets. Friedman has by far the highest air traffic count among resort airports in the Rockies-about 80,000 operations (total landings and takeoffs) per year. This is roughly double the number at Eagle/Vail, although most are from private planes arriving in the summer. But business at Eagle is also taking off. In 1989, the airport had 277 passenger enplanements; last year that number reached 180,000, making Eagle the fourth busiest airport in the state, behind Denver, Colorado Springs and Aspen."When you have more operations at these airports, it stands to reason that you will have more incidents," says Todd Curtis, a pilot and former Boeing airline safety analyst who produces a web site called www.airsafe.com.

The quality of airport facilities is a subject of constant discussion. At Jackson Hole Airport-where a private plane carrying actress Sandra Bullock crash-landed last year without injuring any of the four passengers-Manager George Larson acknowledges that the 6,300-foot runway is too short. "We've had more runway excursions than any other airport," he says, noting that since 1985 about 19 aircraft have overshot the runway, including seven large commercial jetliners. "In an ideal world, we should have another 1,700 feet-just one-third of a mile. But every attempt to enlarge the runway has been unsuccessful," Larson says. The airport is a lightning rod for environmentalists because it is situated in a national park. Despite those same constraints, Jackson Hole this year installed runway approach lights and recently added 300 feet of paved "safety" areas at each end of the runway.

Airports are upgrading their electronics, as well. Eagle/Vail plans to add surveillance radar next year, enabling more planes to land in bad weather. It's also is exploring an experimental program with NASA that uses Global Positioning Satellite data to develop electronic maps. Airport Manager James Elwood says these would "show a pilot where he is relative to everything below him, down to details such as telephone poles and houses."

At Aspen, plans were announced to install the first phase of a newly developed satellite-aided system that would allow pilots to zero in on the airport through ground-based signals. And help is coming from the Colorado Department of Transportation, which is building 12 AWOS (Automated Weather Observation System) stations at major mountain passes throughout the state to transmit continuous localized weather information.

While these improvements can lower the risks of flying in and out of mountain airports, a top aviation accident attorney with 30 years of court experience says that ultimately the buck stops with the pilot. Marc Moller of New York City, who is representing the family of one of the Aspen crash victims, contends that "the exercise of bad judgment through conscious or unconscious risk-taking"-even by experienced pilots-is the leading cause of airplane crashes. "When things go wrong, they go wrong fast," says Moller. "There is very little margin for error."y has been unsuccessful," Larson says. The airport is a lightning rod for environmentalists because it is situated in a national park. Despite those same constraints, Jackson Hole this year installed runway approach lights and recently added 300 feet of paved "safety" areas at each end of the runway.

Airports are upgrading their electronics, as well. Eagle/Vail plans to add surveillance radar next year, enabling more planes to land in bad weather. It's also is exploring an experimental program with NASA that uses Global Positioning Satellite data to develop electronic maps. Airport Manager James Elwood says these would "show a pilot where he is relative to everything below him, down to details such as telephone poles and houses."

At Aspen, plans were announced to install the first phase of a newly developed satellite-aided system that would allow pilots to zero in on the airport through ground-based signals. And help is coming from the Colorado Department of Transportation, which is building 12 AWOS (Automated Weather Observation System) stations at major mountain passes throughout the state to transmit continuous localized weather information.

While these improvements can lower the risks of flying in and out of mountain airports, a top aviation accident attorney with 30 years of court experience says that ultimately the buck stops with the pilot. Marc Moller of New York City, who is representing the family of one of the Aspen crash victims, contends that "the exercise of bad judgment through conscious or unconscious risk-taking"-even by experienced pilots-is the leading cause of airplane crashes. "When things go wrong, they go wrong fast," says Moller. "There is very little margin for error."

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