NTSB recommends tightening nighttime landing rules
April 16, 2002
Aspen’s hazardous terrain and its effects on visibility after sunset are the focus of the first federal recommendation to come out of last spring’s fatal crash of a private jet.
The recommendation, made public Monday, calls for further tightening of the rules for nighttime landings in Aspen and other mountain towns. It comes after a Gulfstream III jet crashed in extremely poor visibility last March, killing 18 just a few hundred feet from the runway at Sardy Field.
It is the first official set of findings to come out of the investigation into the crash. A National Transportation Safety Board spokesman said it provides no clue about the final report on the causes of the accident, which is still to be released.
The plane, owned by Avjet Corp. of Burbank, Calif., and piloted by Bob Frisbie, was attempting to land at the end of twilight, apparently racing to beat a curfew that prohibits certain, especially noisy, jets from landing after dark.
If he had landed successfully, Frisbie and his passengers would have avoided diversion to the Garfield County Airport in Rifle and the van ride back to Aspen.
In a five-page letter to Federal Aviation Administration administrator Jane Garvey dated April 15, NTSB Chairman Marion Blakey points out that the high terrain and bad weather conditions drastically reduced the light levels with which Frisbie had to work.
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Blakey’s letter also provides evidence that the combination of mountainous terrain and lower levels of light reduces the contrast between objects and makes it more difficult for pilots to focus their sight on objects they need to focus on.
The NTSB is in charge of investigating transportation accidents and issuing recommendations on its findings; the FAA oversees operations of the nation’s air traffic control system and airports and has the final say about NTSB recommendations.
Cliff Runge, a local pilot and owner of Aspen Aviation, said not all NTSB recommendations are adopted by the FAA.
“They don’t all become rules – for good reason,” Runge said.
If the recommendation is implemented by the FAA, however, the more restrictive nighttime rules for landing will kick in earlier at Sardy Field than at most other airports in the United States.
Currently, nighttime landings in Aspen are prohibited for all but a select few. Those few include Aspen Aviation, United Express and a smattering of local pilots who have been granted an “instrument approach” into Aspen. Everyone else has to land during daylight or twilight conditions.
“What I’ve seen over the last year is that everybody adjusted their schedules so they didn’t have to land at night,” Runge said. “I presume they’ll continue to do so if the recommendation is adopted.”