Plane crashes in Aspen, killing co-pilot

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Jack Britt Special to The Aspen Times

One person was killed and two were injured when a private jet crashed upon landing at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport on Sunday afternoon, authorities said.

The accident occurred at approximately 12:23 p.m., according to a statement from the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. After impact with the runway, the aircraft was fully engulfed in flames and flipped over. First responders from the Aircraft Rescue Firefighting Team were able to extinguish the fire in minutes, the Sheriff’s Office said. One witness told the L.A. Times that the plane “did a couple rolls, side rolls and it kept trucking down the runway. It just was a big fireball.”

Three men were aboard the plane, a 22-seat Bombardier Challenger 600 and all were pilots, the Sheriff’s Office said. A pilot and co-pilot were flying the plane and another pilot was a passenger. Co-pilot Sergio Emilio Carranza Brabeta, 54, of Mexico, was pronounced dead at the scene. The other two pilots initially were taken to Aspen Valley Hospital before being transferred to another health care facility, said hospital spokeswoman Ginny Dyche.

Dyche said she could not identify the two patients nor describe the nature of their injuries, except that one was in “fair” condition while the other was in “critical” condition. The Sheriff’s Office said the injuries were “moderate to severe” and were “not thought to be thermal in nature.”

FlightAware, a flight-tracking website, listed information showing that the aircraft missed its initial approach amid a 33-knot tailwind. The plane is a corporate jet registered to the Bank of Utah. The flight originated in Toluca, Mexico, and stopped in Tucson, Ariz., a few hours before crashing in Aspen.

The Aspen-Pitkin County Airport is known for its dangerous approach because of the steep descent required to land. In 2001, 18 people were killed when a Gulfstream III jet from Southern California attempted to land at dusk in Aspen during a brief but intense snowstorm. The plane was carrying 15 passengers to a birthday party and a weekend of skiing and snowboarding when it smashed into a Shale Bluffs hillside just west of the airport. A pilot, co-pilot and flight attendant also were aboard.

Just before Sunday’s crash, Doug Britt and his young son, Jack, who live in the El Jebel area, were watching planes take off and land from Owl Creek Road near the eastern end of the airport runway near Buttermilk Mountain. Britt said he had a client who was leaving Aspen and that he typically watches their planes leave.

Britt said the plane that crashed was descending steeply, as all aircraft do in Aspen, but it didn’t seem to be in trouble.

“It was coming in steep and fast. With the hill, we couldn’t see the plane hit the ground, but we saw a fireball that was probably 10 stories tall and then Jack took a photo of a black plume of smoke that was probably 20 stories tall,” Britt said. “We moved closer and saw the tail was still burning and then we watched the big firetruck spray the plane. Then all of the emergency vehicles came out.”

The fuselage and one wing were intact, while another wing was folded underneath the plane, which came to a rest upside down, Britt said.

After the incident, the airport was closed indefinitely, and all of Sunday’s scheduled arrivals and departures were canceled. Aviation Director Jim Elwood said Sunday afternoon that he could not say when the airport would reopen. National Transportation Safety Board investigators were on their way to Aspen, he said.

Bill Tomcich, president of reservations firm Stay Aspen Snowmass, said Sunday evening that 29 commercial flights were scheduled to depart the Aspen airport on Sunday, and virtually every flight was booked to capacity. Only five of those 29 flights were able to depart prior to the airport closure, meaning that the 24 cancellations essentially stranded an estimated 1,600 passengers.

Tomcich said some hotel and lodging properties were offering unpublished, distressed passenger rates for those who needed to extend their stays. He said he would “strongly encourage everyone else in our lodging community to please be compassionate to those stranded guests, along with those who will not be able to check-in as planned tonight.”

With the two-dozen outbound flights canceled Sunday, passengers during the hours after the crash scurried inside the airport to rent cars or arrange other modes of transportation to get to Denver International Airport or other regional airfields in an attempt to fly to their destinations.

One visitor, Brian McNally, a New York photographer, had a flight that was supposed to leave mid-afternoon Sunday. He learned of the crash at the Rubey Park bus depot minutes after it happened, but went to the airport anyway, worried that his flight would leave as scheduled.

“I said I’d better go to the airport because if I don’t and the plane takes off, I’ll have to buy another $1,200 rip-off ticket,” McNally said.

Less than two hours later, he left the airport and boarded a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus with his luggage, bound for Aspen, and his plans up in the air.

“I guess I have an extended vacation. I didn’t really want it, but I’ll accept it,” McNally said.