Safety board blames plane crash on pilot error

Jennifer Davoren
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Pilot error was the main factor in the private jet crash that killed 18 people near Aspen last year, the National Transportation Safety Board announced Tuesday.

But the long-awaited report also notes that charter pilot Bob Frisbie was being pressured by his passengers to land in Aspen under stormy conditions that had forced several other pilots to divert away from Sardy Field.

The NTSB report says that Frisbie was flying too low in attempting to land at the Pitkin County airport on March 29, 2001.

“The flight crew descended below the minimum descent altitude even though the airplane maneuvers and comments on the cockpit voice recorder indicated that neither pilot had established nor maintained visual contact with the runway or its environment,” the report states.

Frisbie flew the Gulfstream III jet below the minimum descent altitude, 10,200 feet, before confirming the location of the airport’s runway, the report says.

The report confirms that previously reported factors, such as worsening weather conditions and the approach of nightfall, were secondary contributors to the crash. The report lists pressure from passengers to land and a misdirected notice from the Federal Aviation Administration as secondary factors, as well.

The Gulfstream III jet, operated by the Avjet Corp. of Burbank, Calif., was chartered by a group of 15 on its way from Southern California to a birthday party in Aspen. A transcript of the Gulfstream’s cockpit voice recorder indicated that snowfall made Frisbie consider landing in Rifle; however, the NTSB report states that his clients pressured him to attempt an Aspen landing.

The recorder transcript did not include comments from passengers that would indicate that Frisbie was pressured to land in adverse conditions. NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said he couldn’t comment on what led the board to list passenger pressure as a contributing factor in the accident.

Sources close to the investigation told The Aspen Times last fall, at the time the transcript was released, that at least one passenger could be heard pressuring Frisbie to land. That information was reported when the transcript was released in October.

The FAA notice, or NOTAM, that was also cited as a factor in the crash was written to warn pilots against circling the Aspen runway after dark. The notice never reached Aspen, and the local airport cleared Frisbie to try an instrument approach procedure, the NTSB report says.

Williams said the lead investigator for the crash was out of town and not available for comment Tuesday.

Families of several crash victims have filed wrongful death suits against both Avjet and the estates of the Gulfstream’s pilot and co-pilot in the 15 months since the crash. Avjet attorney Marty Rose said late last year that the company was continuing to meet with concerned families to settle those claims.

Donna Smith, widow of Frisbie, said Monday that she would wait for the NTSB’s final report before filing her own lawsuit. Smith was surprised when told the final report had been released, and said she would call the NTSB immediately and obtain her own copy.

“I haven’t seen it,” she said of the report. “Usually they inform the families first … I don’t think it’s very fair – we’ve been waiting to get it.”

Smith said a two-year statute of limitations allows her to file a claim before March 2003 if she is not satisfied by the NTSB report.