Rifle Jet Center aims to zoom past Aspen as the place for air services
The white shiny floor is so clean inside the cavernous airplane hangar you could practically eat off of it.
Over in one corner, a spotless black stretch limo waits patiently for its next customer, while a private pilot’s sparkling Audi gets a final buffing, just steps away from the pilot’s 8-person jet.
Four or five other planes are parked around the heated structure – and up to 15 are expected to share hangar space throughout this holiday season.
Upstairs, a remodeling job is nearing completion. There’s a pilots’ lounge with kitchen, TV and telephones, and downstairs, a plush reception area welcomes clients. A customer service desk with big windows facing the tarmac leads to a state-of-the-art flight planning room.
Are we in Aspen? Nope, we’re at the Rifle Jet Center, at the Garfield County Airport just southeast of the city of Rifle, a town known more for its rodeos and county fairs than its interest in catering to the privileged.
But times are changing.
“Rifle’s not a Podunk little airport,” said pilot Jim Hybargar, Rifle Jet Center’s manager, who was born and raised on the Western Slope and has seen the growth and development in this part of the country first-hand. “Over the last five years, this airport has really matured.”
Indeed. Aspen may have a reputation for attracting jet-setters from all over the world. But there’s limited space to park those jets, service them and care for their passengers when they land at Pitkin County Airport.
Plus, Aspen isn’t the easiest place to fly into, with its narrow, mountain canyons, high altitude and fast-moving weather patterns. Rifle, on the other hand, provides a safe and luxurious alternative.
The Garfield County Airport is one of the oldest in the area. Constructed in the 1920s, Hybargar said, it was initially a glider-towing airport. Now, Rifle’s runway is longer than Aspen’s, and Hybargar estimates between 50 to 60 planes are based there.
Garfield County Airport has grown in popularity in recent years. Its relatively close proximity to resorts like Aspen, Vail and Telluride, and increasing housing and golf developments getting approvals in the New-Castle-to-Rifle corridor, make it well-positioned as an important regional hub for private and charter aircraft.
The Flight Department, the parent company of the Rifle Jet Center, is just 3 years old, and is the brainchild of Andrew Doremus, a lifelong Aspen resident, and the company’s chief pilot and president. He originated The Flight Department, a management and charter company for privately owned aircraft, and the Rifle Jet Center, a maintenance and aircraft fueling facility, to give private aircraft owners and charter customers more choice and convenience.
“We’re here to provide the best customer service possible,” he said.
Chief pilot Doremus and the company’s four pilots, three mechanics, and on-site administrators have set their sights on doing just that.
They provide management and maintenance of private jets, and coordinate charter flights anywhere in the country. The current fleet includes Astra-Jet, Westwind and Conquest II aircraft, and a large jet The Flight Department will be adding to its fleet next year will allow the company to fly worldwide.
In addition to The Flight Department and Rifle Jet Center’s staff, Preferred Limousine, Preferred Aircraft and Auto Detailing are all stationed at the company’s Rifle hangar, ready to provide a lift, or a detailed cleaning to aircraft or vehicle. Rental cars, catering and pilots are also available.
“Since we have on-site facilities like these, we can service our customers instantly,” Doremus said.
Adding to convenience and cost effectiveness, the Rifle Jet Center received its fixed base operations status last June, allowing the center to sell aviation fuel at a much lower cost than at Aspen’s airport.
“We sell Phillips 66 aviation fuel,” Doremus said. “We get our fuel straight from the refinery.”
One significant perk at the Rifle Jet Center is its expansive heated hangar. Reportedly the largest on the Western Slope, the 30,000-square-foot structure – 22,500 feet of which are for aircraft parking – is an amenity Aspen no longer has available.
“There’s only one hangar at Aspen,” said Doremus. “It holds 10 planes, it’s constantly full, and it consistently has a waiting list.”
And the new covered hangars that have recently appeared at the west end of the Pitkin County Airport aren’t going to help the overflow. They’ve already been spoken for by local aircraft owners, and their open-sided construction doesn’t alleviate snow and ice accumulation and temperature fluctuations.
But at the jet center in Rifle, there’s ample indoor room for more planes – a real consideration for pilots flying into winter snow country.
Doremus said having hangar space available for aircraft is equivalent to parking a vehicle inside a garage.
“Just like a vehicle, when you leave a plane in the cold, there are more problems to deal with,” he said. “The aircraft will be harder to start, it will need to be de-iced, and all the freezables in the plane will need to be removed. Plus, if you turn the heat on in the wrong sequence, you risk cracking a windshield, which in some of these aircraft can amount to $100,000 in damage. Having hangar space available eliminates these problems.”
Doremus added that because Garfield County Airport operates 24 hours a day, Rifle Jet Center can often accommodate their customers’ schedules easier than charters flying only into Aspen.
“Aspen’s curfew for private planes is a half hour after sunset,” he said. “We can fly into Rifle anytime day or night, and shuttle them up via our limousine service. Plus, Aspen historically has worse weather than Rifle. We only plan on a few days when we can’t get into Garfield County.”
Hybargar said the Rifle Jet Center caters to the high-end air traveler – both private owners who need a maintenance facility for their aircraft and charter flight customers.
Some of The Flight Department’s customers are in the public eye, though they like to keep a low profile.
“We have movie stars coming through,” said Hybargar, not wanting to mention any names. “Plus a lot of people don’t like to fly into Aspen, and so we fly them into Rifle, and we have a limo right here waiting to take them up. In an hour – an hour and a half tops in bad weather – we can get them up to Aspen safely.”
He said most of the company’s business this time of year consists of charters flying into Aspen for ski trips. The jet center also flies ski charters into Telluride, Steamboat Springs and Vail.
Other clients include a man from Parachute who flies out every week to watch the Avalanche hockey team play, a group of doctors who shuttle between Aspen and Telluride, and a lot of regionally based executives who fly out-of-state on business.
And although the amenities abound in Rifle, because of the nature of the aircraft charter business, it’s possible that Rifle Jet Center clients might never touch down at Garfield County Airport. Charter customers can call the company’s toll-free line and arrange for a flight from their home in, for example, Los Angeles, to Aspen. A Rifle Jet Center pilot then flies from Rifle to L.A., flies his passengers to Aspen, drops them off, and returns back to Rifle.
Doremus and Hybargar agreed the ultimate advantage to chartering an aircraft from the Rifle Jet Center is the mountain flying experience of the company’s pilots. Unlike hiring pilots flying unfamiliar aircraft into unfamiliar and difficult areas, jet center pilots are stringently tested and know what to expect and how to handle adverse mountain conditions.
“Due to the nature of our operating region,” Doremus said, “we have self-imposed standards for pilot experience levels higher than required by the FAA.”
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