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This should have been an easy flight. A scenic trip through the mountains on a gorgeous day. And then, this:
So how did we get here?
Aspen's a short flight from our home base of Denver Centennial. Driving takes 4 or 5 hours, depending on traffic. Flying only takes 45 minutes.
The weather looks fine - the winds on arrival are forecast out of 260 at four knots. And, while the wind favors Runway 33, Aspen's operational flow prefers a straight in to runway 15 if able. And a 4 knot tailwind is well within our capabilities. So, that's the plan. A fast flight into Aspen arriving on Runway 15.
Bose is one of our sponsors - and we thought this flight would highlight communication, which is kinda the purpose of a headset, right? And, as things turned out, we ended up with more communication than we planned on.
We've purchased four of the A-20s with Bluetooth. The ANR works well and they're comfortable. Even when wearing a mask and sunglasses. The mask on the other hand? Meh. But my favorite feature is the Bluetooth.
When I couple the headset to my iPad, I get ForeFlight alerts through the Bose A20. Which is really a big deal. I've always found navigating in the air easier than navigating on the ground - and I really like the runway incursion warnings from ForeFlight. Plus, I get cabin altitude warnings when I climb above 12,500'. And since we're on oxygen for most of our flights, I like the reminder.
The flight's fast. Even with a headwind, we're picking up a 146 knot ground speed. As we approach FUNDS - the last fix before Aspen - I'm eying the weather. We're still 46 NM out, and with the mountains, we wont pick up ATIS till we're closer. This is where ADSB or XM Weather comes in handy - I have the latest Aspen METAR. The winds have picked up, from 360 degrees at 9 knots. That tailwind component is higher than I wanted. And close to our limit of 10. While a landing on 33 isn't the airport's preferred option, it's starting to look like the best choice.
And then we pick up ATIS, along with something you don't want to hear: Strong Tailwind Conditions Exist. So now a landing on 33 looking pretty risky.
Tailwinds may be one of the least understood risks in general aviation. You can handle a lot of headwind, but even a CRJ has a 10 knot tailwind limit. First, your ground speed on approach is faster with a tailwind. That means that you need a faster descent rate to hold your approach angle. With a 10 knot headwind and an 85 knot final approach speed, we'll descend at 400 feet per minute on a normal 3 degree glideslope. Spin that around to a 10 knot tailwind, and we need a 500 foot per minute descent rate. Plus, we're landing at 7800', which means we're flying a higher true airspeed - roughly 15% faster than our airspeed indicator reads.
As we round out into our flare, we need to slow that descent rate, which is already tough enough. But, as we enter the flare, friction from the ground will slow down that tailwind. We'll feel like we're gaining a little headwind - which makes us float. And, on this high altitude landing, we're already touching down 15% faster than normal. And that's why so many landings that end up off the end of the runway, start with a tailwind.
Aspen's runway is long - 8000' - which helps us manage that risk. But, all of these problems also increase the chance of losing directional control. Which, again, makes you ask the question, why would you ever land with this tailwind? Right, we won't.
We have a couple outs. First, we'll ask for Runway 33. And, most of the time at Aspen, you'll get it. If traffic's too tight and ATC can't accommodate us, we can head over to Eagle. It's about 25 miles away, and the airport's much more open. A headwind landing there is no problem.
But first, ask. And just like that, ATC gives us Runway 33.
The arrival into Aspen can be a little intimidating, but, it doesn't get much more stunning.
We'll head towards the Red Table VOR, which is a good landmark often used by Aspen Approach. It sits on the first of two ridges, which is Red Table Mountain. As you cross, you should be about 12,500'. The mountain reaches 11,500' to 12000'. So you feel pretty close when you cross.
Then you head for Ruedi Reservoir. This one's hard to miss. And then over the second ridge into the Roaring Fork Valley. And, you should have Aspen in sight. Expect a handover to Aspen Tower anytime now.
As we join the downwind, you realize that the 9000' pattern altitude isn't as high as it sounds. And that hill to our left? I'm getting the feeling that if we tapped the brakes, we'd slow down.
Regardless of the terrain, there's one advantage to flying a pattern. Standard configurations. So, flaps down to 50%, and slow to 100 knots. We're expecting a smooth base to final and an easy landing.
And that. Hold over the city. Which Swayne, coolly points out the issue: holding over the city is pretty tight.
I hadn't considered that today is Presidents Day, one of the busiest weekends in ski country. Which means that my opposite direction landing is screwing up their flow. So I have to circle until they can find a gap.
Normally, circling over the city is frowned upon. The big reason? Noise. Aspen likes its peace and quiet. And they get a lot of traffic, even on a normal day, so they ask you to avoid the city. But when ATC needs to park you in the sky, the city's a close spot.
From a flying perspective, there are some other concerns. Like terrain, which, by now, you have probably picked up on. If we had significant wind, even 20 knots could do, we could find some wicked up and downdrafts in the valley. Which would make holding even more dangerous. Lucky for us today isn't too windy.
So, should we climb? 9000' puts us pretty close to the terrain. As the perspective system wont let us forget...
Climbing up would make a landing more difficult - we only have a short base to final to make it down 1100' feet. And, from the sound of the radios, we're not going to have a lot of time to make that approach. We need to stay in position.
Our flaps are still down at 50%. Should we pull them up? In this case, no. We'll fly at 100 knots, and leaving our flaps down gives us a wide margin on our stall speed. Plus, we have plenty of power. And any faster than 100 knots would make those turns a little tight for my taste.
So for now, we just need to keep a close eye on the terrain.
The arrival is pretty textbook. Swayne flies a smooth base to final, lines up, and makes a nice touchdown. On centerline. Like a pro.
On taxi out, we really get the full picture of how busy this airport is. Falcons, Challengers Gulfstreams. They're stacked three deep on the ramp. So you have to ask, was landing on 33 a good idea, should we have taken 15 like everyone else?
Being busy doesn't change the tailwind. And we're not a challenger, we're a Cirrus. High traffic shouldn't pressure us to make a bad decision. Either the winds needed to die down, or we needed to go somewhere else. ATC worked their magic here. They found a way to accommodate us. And, if they couldn't, we would have made a video about diverting and landing at Eagle.
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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.