Lenado area is deadly ground for airplanes
Although there had been no airplane crashes around Lenado for more than a decade until Saturday, the area has proved extremely deadly over the last 36 years.
Six previous plane crashes have claimed 20 lives in the rugged terrain around Lenado since 1964, according to The Aspen Times’ research of records kept by the National Transportation Safety Board and Pitkin County Air Rescue.
Lenado is located about five miles northeast of Aspen.
The latest fatal crash occurred Saturday when three members of a Denver-area family and a family friend perished in the wreck of a Cessna 195 about 2 1/2 miles east of Lenado.
The victims were identified by the Pitkin County Coroner’s office as James William Rightmire, 51; his wife, Rhonda Rightmire, 40; their son, Keith Rightmire, 16; and family friend Eric Sherwood, 17.
They departed Aspen Airport at 11:06 a.m. Saturday, flew into a narrow canyon in the mountains above Lenado and attempted to turn around. One wing was ripped off when the plane clipped a spruce tree. The other wing and the plane’s body were shredded when the aircraft plowed into other trees and the ground.
Coroner Tom Walsh said the victims died instantly from the trauma of the accident. The bodies were then charred by small fires that broke out.
It is unknown who was flying, although the plane was owned by the elder Rightmire, who was a pilot with United Airlines. An investigator from the NTSB was at the scene Tuesday. Deceiving terrain Logical factors rather than any strange phenomena like the Bermuda Triangle effect explain the high number of crashes around Lenado, according to local aviation experts.
The terrain around Lenado creates a perception problem, particularly in the canyon where Saturday’s crash occurred, according to Cliff Runge, president and general manager of Aspen Base Operations, a service provider for private aircraft at Aspen Airport.
The terrain doesn’t have features like rock outcrops or lakes – just lots and lots of trees, he said. The canyon is a basin that rises quicker than it appears.
“It’s almost like an optical illusion,” said Runge. “You don’t perceive that the edge of the bowl is coming at you faster than you’re climbing.” Warm air affects climbing That startling quality of the terrain often combines with an effect that pilots call “density altitude,” said Betty Pfister, an accomplished Aspen aviator who founded Pitkin County Air Rescue after a flurry of local airplane crashes in 1968.
Pfister said most mountain pilots would agree that many small aircraft crashes are the result of the lack of knowledge of density altitude or experience dealing with it.
The concept is really quite simple. Warm temperatures weaken the performance of aircraft engines and decrease their climbing ability.
“Woody Creek/Lenado and Independence Pass are the two most frequent areas of density altitude problems,” said Pfister. “You look up and the ground is rising faster than the plane is capable of climbing.”
The Rightmire plane crash occurred at an elevation just below 10,000 feet. Depending on temperatures that morning, the density altitude factor could have made the terrain comparable to 12,000 feet or more, according to Drew Steketee, senior vice president of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
The industry is getting more effective in understanding and dealing with density altitude, but it still can present problems, he said. Vintage aircraft However, Steketee said the Rightmire aircraft’s performance capability shouldn’t be discounted because of the plane’s age. Federal Aviation Administration records show it was a 1949, single-engine Cessna 195.
That engine had higher horsepower and is “a little more powerful” than typical single-engine aircraft, he said. In addition, that model of aircraft used a wing design that provided more lift than today’s models, he said.
The NTSB might have a difficult job determining what exactly did happen on the Rightmire flight.
The Colorado Civil Air Patrol performed a standard radar tracking when the Rightmire aircraft was reported overdue Sunday. Video of radar images is saved for a certain period and available for review.
That review showed the plane disappeared from radar about three minutes after taking off at 11:06 a.m. Saturday. However, that’s nothing unusual, said ABO’s Runge. He said the Aspen Airport possesses only a transponder radar system that cannot “see” through obstacles.
The Rightmire’s aircraft would have “disappeared” from Aspen’s radar as soon as it was obscured by hills in the Woody Creek area. Plus, it was too low to be picked up by radar from the Front Range.
The Civil Air Patrol also reported that “one random hit” was recorded from the Rightmire aircraft’s emergency location transmitter.
AOPA’s Steketee said that’s not unusual. The ELTs are activated in a crash, but then can be destroyed by impact, explosion or fire. In some cases their antenna can be obscured, so no signal is sent out.
Eric Sherwood’s father, Robert, notified Pitkin County authorities Sunday at 4:20 p.m. that the Rightmire aircraft was overdue. Capt. Marvin Straus of the Civil Air Patrol left Jefferson Airport at 6:13 a.m. Monday and located the Rightmire plane at 7:17 a.m.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User