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Josh Ritter is a pilot for Basin Electric Power Cooperative, located in Bismarck, North Dakota. He holds CL-65 and CE-500 type ratings, and currently flies the Citation Encore (CE-560) and Cessna 208 Caravan. Josh previously flew CRJ-700s into Aspen, Colorado, for Skywest Airlines.
Aspen-Pitkin County (KASE) serves an elite Colorado mountain town popular with a wealthy and famous crowd. Mountains surround the airport and, at 7,820' MSL, departure can be a performance struggle for any aircraft.
The airport has several published non-precision instrument approaches. All are "circle-to-land;" the lowest gets you down to 2,000' AGL. All require three miles of flight visibility to continue below minimum descent altitude. These approaches often leave Aspen below minimums.
Ritter explains the reason for Aspen's high approach minimums. "Aspen is arguably one of the toughest airports to get into in the country," he says. "There's a lot of surrounding terrain, variable winds, and it's a one-way in, one-way out airport. You land one direction and then turn around and take-off the opposite direction."
A special approach, the LOC DME to Runway 15, allows aircraft to land at Aspen with lower minimums - down to 8,780' MSL (roughly 1,000' AGL) and three miles of flight visibility. The approach has a special missed approach procedure. If you can't land after crossing the missed approach point, you execute a emergency extraction procedure. The approach requires special training and isn't published in the standard package of approach procedures.
SkyWest began flying into Aspen from their Denver and Salt Lake City bases in 2006. Because of the special training required, they created a special bid package that consisted of ASE trips. "I was junior-manned into Aspen," says Ritter. When a low seniority pilot is 'junior-manned,' he's forced into a bid package that no one else wants.
I'm curious why Aspen hadn't been bid - it seems like a fun trip. Ritter says, "It was new, and no-one knew how the trips would work out. People were unsure of the schedule. They pulled from the bottom and there I was." SkyWest now bases all of their Aspen crews in Denver; the crews also fly into Eagle-Vail, which also requires special training.
For initial qualification, Ritter completed two days of simulator training on the approach into Aspen, plus a minimum of two observations from the jump-seat during actual approaches. To complete the training, he flew with a check airman for his first two approaches into Aspen. Every twelve months during recurrent training, Ritter completed an extra simulator ride into Aspen.
During the summer, pilots can usually shoot the visual approach into Aspen. Winter can be a different story, however. I ask Ritter how often they flew in with bad weather. He laughs and says, "all the time, basically, from December to February. There was one January when we shot the approach to minimums nearly every time we went in - and we probably did five legs in-and-out of there a day."
Watch A CRJ-700 Fly Into Aspen
I ask Ritter if he ever was nervous on the approach. He hesitates and says, "There was a time when it had been snowing all day, which isn't unusual. After a divert back to Denver earlier in the day, we returned for the next scheduled leg to Aspen. When we arrived, they [tower] said the winds were calm and, after we landed, we noticed the windsock was pointed straight out on our tail. It's a twenty knot windsock, so we had a twenty knot tailwind."
"The captain landed early, got on the brakes early, got on the thrust reversers. He's on the brakes the whole way, we pass the 2000' markers still going 95 knots, the anti-skid's on, we're sliding all over the place. Somehow we stopped. Someone was blocking the turnoff at the end, so we had to do a 180 on the 100' wide runway, which is hard to do because you need about 80' in the CRJ 700. It worked out ok, because we had slid to the right a little bit, so we were in a good position."
I ask Ritter what approaches were like into Aspen with the mountain winds. "Sometimes, with the wind shear, you have power at idle with gear down and flaps 45, 30 knots over ref and pitched down five to ten degrees - and not descending. You couldn't get the airplane to come down. At the end of the approach you've got the power in the takeoff detent to arrest the descent."
He continues, "It all sounds dangerous, but the training department at SkyWest does an incredible job training the pilots that fly in and out of Aspen. The Aspen pilots have a separate bid packet and ASE is pretty much all they do. The pilots are very experienced with Aspen operations, and are aware of the 'gotchas' associated with Aspen flying. Every captain I flew with was very professional and gave every approach the respect it deserved. Skywest has been flying into Aspen since 2006 with 20-25 daily departures during winter months and, as far as I know, there hasn't been a single incident."
I ask Ritter if he enjoyed the Aspen routes. "It's probably the most fun I've had flying an airplane."
Aspen is known for it's high-profile crowd. Actors, dignitaries and the rich-and-famous are often photographed on the slopes around town. I ask Ritter if he's met anyone notable on his trips. "Yeah - I had Gene Simmons from KISS a couple times, and Ashley Olson. She was really nice, super polite. I had William H. Macy, and Tom Brokaw once. And probably other ones I didn't know."
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Aleks is a Boldmethod co-founder and technical director. He's worked in safety and operations in the airline industry, and was a flight instructor and course manager for the University of North Dakota. You can reach him at email@example.com.