Sunday, December 18, 2022

Aspen-Pitkin County Airport (KASE): Aircraft pilot group on a mission to curb crashes

Barry Vaughn, an alternate member of the local Airport Advisory Board, is shown during Thursday's board meeting. Vaughn recently spearheaded the creation of an airport safety task force, which will hold its first meeting on Monday. It consists of 12 pilots. 

Safety, safety, safety.

It’s a word that’s repeated often during nearly any discussion involving the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport and plans for its redevelopment, or airport operations in general.

Safety was a primary topic during the 2019-20 ASE Vision process that led to the formation and adoption of the lengthy list of ­Common Ground recommendations for the redevelopment of the airport. Often, various forms of data are used to support the perception — some say the conclusion — that general aviation operations at the airport are less safe than commercial airline activity. Private jet activity, according to airport officials, accounts for around 80% of overall operations at ASE while commercial flight operations make up about 20%.

In recent months, no one has been singing the safety song louder than Barry Vaughn, an alternate member of the Airport Advisory Board. It was a primary point during his interview for a seat at the board’s table in September. And last month, he convinced other members of the board to join the safety dance through the creation of the “Flight Ops Safety Task Force.”

The task force, according to a county news release, will include local pilots with substantial experience operating at ASE. They will develop recommendations to enhance and improve safety, focusing on general aviation and cultivating partnerships with a variety of aviation organizations to explore opportunities that would help improve aviation safety at the local airport.

In a recent interview, Vaughn stressed that the story concerning the push for the task force was not about him, but the 12 pilots who have been named to the group. Their first meeting will be held on Monday.

“This is not about me,” said Vaughn, a pilot and former civil litigator who practiced in California, where he volunteered on boards to assist the Santa Monica airport with various issues. “To be clear: This is not about me beating my chest.”

Airport Director Dan Bartholomew, however, credited Vaughn with jumpstarting the entity on safety. He said while the task force would have been created eventually, Vaughn was responsible for a faster start.

“He has a passion for it,” Bartholomew said. “But I also think he knows some other folks in the valley that also have passion for it, and were eager to do it as well. So I think it was just was the right time, and he was willing to take it on.”

It’s no secret that the Aspen airport has had its fair share of emergencies, crashes and fatalities involving private aircraft over many decades.

Vaughn said he has been conducting research — at this point, it’s neither exhaustive nor complete — showing 124 accidents since 1964 that are in some way connected to the Aspen airport (such as a flight that originated locally or was bound for ASE) or surrounding airspace. Thirty-six of the 124 involved fatalities. He stressed that his research was not official.

“With most of them, I see a lot of incidents where pilots have taken off from here and they came to some kind of grief in the mountains and it doesn’t have anything to do with the conditions at the airport, it had to do with their mountain flying skills or lack of them, or something they ran into once they were more than five miles out from the airport,” Vaughn said.

So far in 2022, the Aspen airport has experienced six minor mishaps with private planes on airport property itself, according to Bartholomew. While in many cases the causes have yet to be fully revealed, either pilot error or some sort of mechanical problem is usually the culprit. Some of the situations involved a plane sliding off the runway, which results in the airport’s closure. Others are more serious, such as when a jet flew in too low on approach and clipped lights and equipment on the runway. There also have been fuel spills that have required extensive cleanup efforts.

But what can the task force do to help improve the safety record of private-aircraft operators and reduce accidents? U­nlike ­commercial airline pilots, fliers of private aircraft are not required to be trained and certified in the handling of the complexities involved in takeoffs and landings in and around Aspen and its mountainous surroundings.

Vaughn and Bartholomew said the task force will work to cultivate partnerships with a variety of aviation organizations to explore opportunities that would help improve aviation safety. The goal is to provide information that will educate private pilots in a way that’s encouraging and not mandatory. At some point, the pilots could receive extra certifications that could bring about professional opportunities or even liability insurance discounts.

Amory Lovins, a renowned physicist and co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, has been critical of the county’s process involving redevelopment plans for the local airport. However, the Old Snowmass resident lauded the creation of the safety task force in an interview on Saturday when he discussed the creation of a new nonprofit that will be concerning itself with local airport issues.

“I was delighted to see that and I’ve actually written my thanks and congratulations for that safety initiative,” Lovins said. “It’s too early to see where it will go. But a group of expert local pilots certainly has a lot of potential to explore safety issues more deeply and broadly than has been done so far.”

Raytheon Hawker 800XP, N99AP: Accident occurred February 21, 2022 at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport (KASE), Colorado

Pilots will tell you that flying into and out of Aspen can be dangerous and so does the data.

“Over the last four decades, there have been over 40 accidents — all involving private, non-airline aircraft — that caused substantial damage or the complete loss of the aircraft in the vicinity of Aspen-Pitkin County Airport (ASE). 

Aspen-Pitkin County Airport challenges arise from factors like the airport’s altitude, its surrounding mountains, its sloping runway that requires most aircraft to land to the south, and takeoff to the north, wind currents, etc.”

That observation was made in the Airport Advisory Board’s “common ground recommendations” adopted by the Board of County Commissioners in December 2020. The recommendations were the fruits of nearly two years of work and public feedback missions led by the vision committee, which, in November, unanimously agreed to the formation of what is called a “flight operations safety task force.”

Last week, the Pitkin County commissioners approved the vision committee’s recommendation for a task force, a collection of 12 seasoned pilots with either local connections or local homes, aimed at recommending measures to increase safety and reduce accidents at the Aspen airport. Their emphasis will be on general aviation.

“It’s a real opportunity for the local pilot community to help in airport affairs,” Roaring Fork Valley pilot Barry Vaughan, who chairs the task force, told the county commissioners. “Airport politics are convoluted and complex, and the pilot community, often perhaps at least from one perspective, isn’t heard much. And, this is something that shouldn’t be controversial. It’s something everybody can get behind.”

Vaughan noted the Federal Aviation Administration’s authority when it comes to regulating airspace, pilot conduct, and licensing, for instance.

“What can the local community do?” he asked.

The answer, he said, is having the task force’s pilots — by using their connections and resources in the aviation field — craft measures the airport advisory board would first review before advancing to the Board of County Commissioners for its approval, he said. The task force ideally would present its initial measures and suggestions to the advisory board this spring, he said.

“These pilots … will not be making any commitments on behalf of the county,” Vaughan explained, “but what they’ll be doing is reaching out to our potential partners in the aviation community and discussing amongst themselves ideas that we can come up with that on a voluntary basis, if pilots get involved, can help make our airspace safer.”

The backgrounds of the group’s pilot advisors run the gamut, he told the board.

“We’ve got representatives of different echelons of flights levels. We’ve got it all covered,” he said, ticking off the names of Daniel Baker, founder of the aviation tracker called FlightAware; Bruce Gordon and Gary Kraft of locally-based EcoFlight; retired commercial pilot Capt. Brett Detwiler; engineer and private pilot Peter Hutter; Mayo Aviation pilot William Landis; developer and private pilot John McBride; investment adviser and pilot Walter Obermeyer; airline transport pilot Mike Solondz; engineer and private pilot Steve Vance; and Tyson Weihs, who is a commercial pilot and founder of ForeFlight, an app for pilots.

“I think it’s good mix of people,” said Commissioner Patti Clapper, adding that, during her career at Aspen Valley Hospital, “I spent too much time dealing with first-hand and meeting with families of victims of incidents at the airport and actually more surrounding our airport. I think this is a great opportunity for us to really look at safety.”

This year alone has seen four runway incidents involving private aircraft at Sardy Field that temporarily closed the airport. There were no fatalities or major injuries, but there was property damage. Two of those runway incidents — on Feb. 21 and Aug. 15 — cost county taxpayers $517,546. The airport also is trying to recoup the expenses from the aircraft owners and their insurers.

The February crash involved a Hawker 800XP business jet that overran the runway on the north side of the airport, rupturing the aircraft’s fuel tanks that spilled some 1,200 gallons of jet fuel on the ground. The aircraft also was totaled.

“A third-party crane and operator was contracted for removal of the aircraft from the runway safety area before the facility could re-open for operations,” according to a supplemental budget request from airport director Dan Bartholomew to the county board. “In addition to the costs incurred for soil remediation and crane services, additional costs were tabulated to account for other resources, including regular and overtime personnel costs for Airport and Public Works staff who responded to the incident.”

The August incident was when a Cessna Citation 560 business jet ran off the runway as it was landing, spilling 220 gallons of jet oil and damaging several airfield lights and signs. Much of the oil was washed away by rain, but “mitigation of the contaminated soil required the services of a third-party contractor,” said Bartholomew’s request. “The majority of the costs to the county resulting from this incident — for which reimbursement from the aircraft owner’s insurance is being sought — is for airfield lights and signage, along with the costs to remediate contaminated soils resulting from this incident.”

The most recent fatal general aviation accident originating from the Aspen airport — on July 3, 2021 — and was due to pilot error, according to a preliminary investigation report from the National Transportation Safety Board. The final report has not been completed.

Two New York residents were killed when one of them, the pilot of a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza, abandoned the pre-approved instrument flight path and departed under visual rules, crashing the plane near Midway Pass, which is in the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness. The plane was about 20 miles outside of Aspen, en route to Iowa, at an elevation of 11,500 feet, when it crashed into a mountainside, the report said.

The challenges posed by Aspen-Pitkin County Airport have generated such dubious distinctions as being among’s “America’s 6 Scariest Airports,” which noted the March 2001 tragedy involving a Gulfstream attempting to land in Aspen, crashing into Shale Bluffs.

“In 2001, a chartered plane crashed, killing all 18 people aboard. In the wintertime, Aspen, Colorado, sees a large influx of tourists keen to hit the slopes. But, the surrounding mountains demand a steep take-off and approach angle. All pilots flying in and out of Aspen-Pitkin must have special certification to show they are up to the task. In addition, the snowy and windy conditions can wreak havoc,” said.

Or, take Fodors, which offered in its November 2021 “World’s 13 Most Dangerous Airport” piece: “Another scary airport in the U.S. is Aspen/Pitkin County Airport (elevation 7,800 feet) in the popular ski town of Aspen. Multiple crashes have happened due to ever-changing wind conditions, low visibility, and mountains on either side. It’s definitely one of the trickiest runways to land in the country.”

The ultimate goal of the flight operations safety task force, is to address what its name implies: “Unlike typical business or governmental objectives, the success of this mission would ultimately be measured in the negative, by a reduction in the number of accidents and incidents occurring at KASE and in the associated airspace and in the reduction of the number of concomitant accident/incident reports by the National Transportation Safety Board,” said a memo to the commissioners ahead of last week’s meeting.


  1. Oh….thank goodness. Love you….Kathryn’s ­čśť

  2. Same here … I know it’s a lot of work and it is appreciated.

  3. Glad to see articles again. Thank you for this site.
    Merry Christmas to the publisher and readers of the Kathryn's report

    1. I wondered if the site had been abandoned due to commentators. Like most forum, the viterol in response and opinions (yes, despite what we each think, most of what we say is opinions) was becoming less and less civil. We can differ without labeled political or stupid or unworthy of consideration. I’ve seen people mauled in reply to questions just asking for information to understand aviation terms and concepts better.

      I hope Kathryn’s Report will continue. I learn much from it and the comments. What is our role in ensuring this valuable resource remains available.