Aspen air traffic controllers honored for performance during Lake Christine Fire |

Aspen air traffic controllers honored for performance during Lake Christine Fire

Brandon Leavitt (second from left), operations supervisor at the Aspen tower, and Matthew Schlottman (second from right), air traffic controller and union steward at Aspen, accepted an FAA team excellence award earlier this month on behalf of their colleagues. Presenting the award are David Suomic (left) and Wayne Heibeck (right) of the FAA.
FAA/courtesy photo

Air traffic controllers at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport received special recognition earlier this month for finding creative ways to get aircraft safely in and out during the Lake Christine Fire this summer.

The controllers received a team excellence award from the Federal Aviation Administration in mid-October during presentation of the 2018 Regional Administrator Awards in Washington state.

“I’m super proud of them for their flexibility, creativity and tenacity” during the fire, Wayne Hall, air traffic manager at Aspen, said Monday.

The Lake Christine Fire broke out on the evening of July 3 and forced the FAA to issue temporary flight restrictions that affected the procedures for most approaches and all departures from the airport. There were numerous fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters used in the firefighting effort for the first couple of weeks after it broke out. Air traffic at the airport couldn’t use the standard routes in and out.

“It was a really big deal,” Hall said. “The fires were huge and they had a big impact on the airport because of the temporary flight restrictions. Early on, everything was a problem.”

Aspen is unique among airports because the surrounding terrain requires takeoffs and landings to occur in opposite directions.

“The air traffic controllers at the Aspen tower were faced with a unique challenge during this event: how to safely guide aircraft around the (temporary flight restrictions), through mountainous terrain and allow the aircraft time to complete stabilized approaches,” the nomination form for the team said.

“The temporary flight restrictions complicated the operation exponentially,” the nomination continued. “Controllers were unable to issue aircraft the most commonly used approaches into the airport. Each day brought different conditions and a new ‘best’ way to work the traffic flow into the airport.”

Hall said communication between air traffic controllers and the fire incident command teams was critical because it led to some creative ways to get flights in and out. For example, while the restrictions were in place, the firefighting team would inform the tower when there were “hot” and “cold” times for fixed-wing operations, Hall said. During cold periods of inactivity, controllers could implement more standard procedures for aircraft arriving and departing from the airport.

Commercial flights were affected to a greater degree by the restrictions because they have specific procedures that must be followed. During the initial phases of the fire, standard instrumental departures were unusable because of the flight restrictions. Controllers offered a seldom-used departure but it had to be closely watched because of conflict with the only arrival path into the airport.

“Controllers adapted and began running bursts of arrivals followed by bursts of departures in order to avoid those conflicts,” the nomination form said. There were flights affected, Hall said, but it could have been significantly worse.

Between July 3 and July 22, there were 698 scheduled flights at the airport, according to data released at the time by the airport manager’s office. An estimated 34 percent were impacted; most canceled and some diverted.

Commercial flights were operating close to full capacity by the last week of July.

“I believe they performed admirably,” Hall said of the air traffic team. “They adapted all the time to this.”

Credit also is due to the incident command teams because they realized how vital the airport was to Aspen’s economy and adjusted the flight restrictions when it was practical, he said.

Hall said the controllers also worked extended hours at the tower during the initial phase of the fire to provide personal observations on weather conditions in case the power went out and automated weather observations weren’t available. First responders issued a warning July 4 that the upper Roaring Fork Valley could lose power for as many as three days because of damage to transmission lines. The outage never materialized. Back-up generators were in place at the airport.

In the nomination form, Hall wrote it was a privilege working with the controllers and supervisors during the demanding weeks of the fire. Some of them were directly affected by the blaze — at least one lived in an area that was evacuated and others voluntary evacuated.

“They performed superbly when it counted the most,” Hall wrote.

The team members are Brandon Leavitt and Kyle Gelroth, tower supervisors, and controllers Victor Alday, Luong An, Trevor Benthusen, Blair Cantrell, Matthew Croke, John Derrigan, Jennifer Finch, Jacob Greenwade, Nathaniel Osenga, Matthew Schlottman, Logan Schneider, Paden Sperling and Evan Vigil.

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