Experts: Strong winds put aircraft at risk

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times

Sunday’s plane crash that resulted in one fatality cast the spotlight on the difficulties of flying into Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. But experts say that while the airport poses challenges, weather conditions can be the chief detriment to landing safely.

“It’s a challenging airport, but so is New York LaGuardia, and so was Hong Kong for years,” said Mike Boyd, who runs the BoydGroup International, an aviation-consulting firm in Evergreen. “Yes, Aspen is a challenging airport, but other airports can be challenging, too.”

The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation into the crash, which happened at 12:23 p.m. Sunday. Winds were strong at the time, and FlightAware, a flight-tracking website, listed information showing that the aircraft missed its initial approach amid a 33-knot tailwind.

“You hear that [the pilot] had a 33-knot tailwind, and it’s the pilot in command who makes the decision,” Boyd said. “As long as we continually allow humans in the cockpit, humans will make mistakes.”

New York attorney Marc Moller, who has a home in Aspen and represented some relatives of the victims in the 2001 Gulfstream III jet crash in Aspen — which resulted in 18 deaths — said it’s the pilot’s discretion, not the airport traffic controller’s, on whether to attempt an approach or landing.

“A tailwind in excess of 10 knots is usually a dangerous condition for landing any aircraft,” Moller said, adding that “when you’ve got a tailwind and you don’t have an appropriate headwind, your ability to gain lift is compromised if something goes wrong.”

Moller emphasized that he was basing his assessment on the reports he had read, and it’s too early to speculate if the pilot was at fault.

The jet was a 22-seat Bombardier Challenger 600.

Witnesses describing the crash have said that the plane came into the airport fast and at a steep angle before crashing on the runway. It then caught fire and rolled before coming to a rest in an upside-down position. One wing was intact while another wing lay underneath the aircraft.

Co-pilot Emilio Carranza Brabata, 54, of Mexico, was pronounced dead at the scene. The other two men — identified as Miguel Angel Henriquez and Moises Carranza Brabata, also of Mexico — were injured. They initially were taken to Aspen Valley Hospital before being transferred to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction.

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