Landings at airport could become easier |

Landings at airport could become easier

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Pitkin County plans to move forward on a program that will make landing at the county airport easier for private and commercial pilots alike.

The Pitkin County commissioners yesterday gave airport Director Jim Elwood permission to conduct field tests, with the help of the Federal Aviation Administration, with a piece of equipment known as a localizer. If the test works out, Elwood hopes to have one installed permanently before next winter, making it easier for planes to land in bad weather.

A localizer is essentially an electronic beacon that beams a signal down the center of a runway. Pilots as far as 10 miles out can retrieve the signal, which lets them know where they are horizontally in relation to the runway’s center line.

Planes of all sizes have the equipment needed to read a localizer signal because the technology dates back to the 1930s, and most airports have localizers.

John Chapman, the FAA’s top expert on landing procedures at mountain airports, told a group of local aviators and airport personnel in April that past attempts to install one here have failed because of the geography around the airport. But the antenna and electronic equipment may now be advanced enough to overcome the mountainous terrain.

Elwood said an FAA feasibility study indicates that a localizer would reduce the altitude from which the airport must be visible for a pilot to land by 300 feet for general aviation pilots and 620 feet for commercial pilots.

“This is significant – it’s a much greater benefit than we originally expected,” said County Commissioner Mick Ireland at a briefing with Elwood.

A potential reduction in the ceiling of 620 feet for commercial traffic would mean United Airlines and other commercial operators could land when the airport is visible from just 880 feet up, Elwood said. That means bad-weather landings would be easier in Aspen than in Eagle, where the ceiling minimum is 1,000 feet.

Elwood estimates that 85 of the 100 commercial flights into Aspen canceled last winter would have been able to land if the minimum cloud ceiling was 880 feet instead of the current standard of 1,500 feet.

The next phase of testing involves temporarily installing a localizer at the airport.

“Numerous tests would take place during Phase 2, including a flight check by FAA aircraft to determine if permanent installation is practical,” Elwood wrote in a memo to the county commissioners. “Phase 2 would sort out 98 percent or more of the potential issues associated with permanent installation.”

If the ground and flight tests prove that the antenna technology has advanced enough to conquer local geography, the third phase would involve purchasing and installing a localizer for permanent use here.

The price of a new localizer is estimated at $500,000. That amount includes spare parts and some extra cash to cover unexpected delays during installation.

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