Nothing but blue skies for retiring Aspen air traffic manager
Aspen is known as one of the toughest airports in the country to fly into and out of because of the narrow valley and high surrounding peaks.
Wayne Hall has dedicated the past 17 years to helping increase the safety of flight operations due to those challenges. Hall, 58, retired June 1 after working up the ranks from air traffic controller to supervisor and ultimately air traffic manager.
He oversees the staff who guides aircraft on the ground and in the air from the tower. He said he is very proud of the air traffic control crew he is leaving behind because of their dedication to teamwork and safety.
“My opinion is Aspen is a safe, safe airport,” he said. “The reason we do (various) mitigations is to counter the challenges.”
Aspen is one of only three airports in the country where landings and departures occur in opposite directions. Aircraft generally take off to the north and land to the south.
“At Aspen, because of Aspen Mountain and the upgrade slope and other things that feed into that airport, it’s an opposite direction operation almost all the time,” he said.
That requires more coordination by the air traffic controllers.
“You just need to be on your game and we’re very, very good at it,” Hall said. “We have to do a lot more talking than at a typical airport.”
He estimated that there are about 15 days per year that are “extremely busy” at the Aspen airport and another 150 or so days that are moderately busy. That leaves ample time to train new air traffic controllers and get them prepared for the busier times.
They currently have a crew of 17, including seven trainees.
For the benefit of Aspen’s tourism-oriented economy, some business factions have clamored for higher priority for commercial aircraft over private aircraft. That’s a debate that’s moot for the air traffic controllers because of their legal responsibilities.
“From air traffic’s perspective, an airplane is an airplane is an airplane,” Hall said. “It doesn’t matter.
“It really comes down to first come, first served and that’s the rule,” he continued. “If you ask people in the commercial family, they will say, ‘Why are the (general aviation) getting all the priority?’ And if you ask the GA community, they will say, ‘Why is the commercial getting the priority?’”
In his eyes, the issue isn’t private versus commercial flights.
“It’s a volume thing,” he said, noting that the volume is primarily an issue on about 15 days. “When that happens, everybody gets delayed. It doesn’t matter if it’s a GA or a commercial. Everybody gets delayed. It gets spread out fairly.”
Hall said one of the highlights of his career in Aspen was working with the air traffic managers for the Lake Christine firefighting effort in July 2018. They teamed to devise a way to keep the vast majority of airport traffic moving despite the intense air operations in the skies over Basalt, El Jebel and Basalt Mountain. The Federal Aviation Administration recognized the Aspen air traffic control team for its special efforts.
Other collaborations with stakeholders at the airport led to other safety improvements, particularly for aircraft departing the airport and for planes that are landing.
Hall and others spotted a trend where on some scattered winter days when snow was on the ground and specific natural light conditions existed, it created a visual effect that made the airport runway difficult for pilots to spot. During his tenure, he was aware of three aircraft going off the side of the runway while landing. Thankfully, all three incidents were minor.
It would have been easy to write the incidents off as pilot error, but Hall was presented with a photo from a different pilot that demonstrated how the runway location could be difficult to see from 5 or 6 miles out in certain conditions. Stakeholders discussed the issue and safety lights were added.
“Even on nice clear days we run the approach lights to delineate the runway,” Hall said. “There’s a new project to put lights near the end of the runway to help define the runway.”
He stressed that just because conditions are safer now than they were five years ago, it doesn’t mean conditions were unsafe before.
“We can be safe but we can still get safer. That should be my tag line,” he said.
There has been one fatal crash at the Aspen airport in recent years on January 2014, when a Bombardier Challenger 600 aircraft attempted to land in high winds. The copilot was killed. The pilot and a passenger survived when the aircraft crashed nose down at the airport and burst into flames.
The National Transportation Safety Board ruled that a strong tailwind was the primary cause of the crash. The experience of the pilots also was a factor.
Hall said air traffic controllers make sure pilots are aware of all factors, such as a high tailwind. In that case, they could not order the pilot not to land.
Hall was an air traffic controller in the U.S. Air Force, then retired and was living in Colorado Springs awaiting his wife’s retirement from the Air Force when an opening came available in the Aspen tower in 2003. He applied, got the job and fell in love with the Roaring Fork Valley and the outdoor lifestyle it provides.
“I’m super fortunate that I fell into this position in the first place, almost 17 years ago,” he said. “Things just seemed to line up. And then to get here and to be able to live in this valley and become a local and be part of this fantastic subculture we have here, I just love it. My wife is the same way.”
Suffice to say, they are staying put in retirement. Hall said he and his wife are looking forward to immersing themselves more fully in the Roaring Fork Valley lifestyle starting this summer, with some travels thrown in.
The only factor that made the decision to retire difficult was his admiration for the air traffic control team, he said.
The feeling was mutual. The team issued this statement: “The controllers of Aspen Tower, past and present, would like to thank Wayne for his dedication to the facility and support of all who have worked there. Your experience and knowledge will be truly missed, and we wish you happy adventures and peaceful relaxation in retirement.”
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