Flight Planning Demands a Dose of Common Sense

By Robert Mark on July 1st, 2024

Decades ago, when I learned to fly, it was well-known that a commercial co-pilot/first officer was allowed to occupy the right seat of a transport airplane only if they’d proven themselves subservient enough to understand that the guy in the left seat was perfectly capable of handling the airplane all by himself.

Captains believed the FO was only there to check a regulatory box. If the co-pilot was lucky, the captain might let them work the radios and help with a few navigational duties, but the phrase “Gear up and Shut up” was considered a normal cockpit environment.

Questions, opinions, or ideas from the right seat were not welcomed. If the FO had learned anything, it would have been by accident. And there were plenty of accidents; a few airliner crashes a month, while tragic, were not unheard of.

In 1979, a pivotal moment in aviation history occurred when NASA psychologist John Lauber’s research team revealed that human error was the cause of nearly 75 percent of commercial aviation accidents. This finding highlighted the role of communication, decision-making, and leadership in cockpit behavior and the resulting accidents. It also led to the birth of cockpit resource management (CRM); a process designed to train crews to utilize all the flight deck’s human resources effectively. CRM became a leading force in preventing ‘pilot error’ and reducing accidents. Pilots actually began talking with each other before making any life-or-death decisions. Later, the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) combined with CRM (now called crew resource management) led to a global reduction of air carrier accidents. There hasn’t been a fatal air carrier accident in the US since 2009.

Despite the incredible improvements in commercial aviation safety, the same cannot be said for general aviation. The fatal accident statistics remain alarming despite the dedicated efforts and safety enhancements from groups like the General Aviation Joint Safety Committee (GAJSC). Nearly 50 years after NASA’s groundbreaking research, most accidents in non-airliner flights are still attributed to pilot error, indicating that much work is yet to be done in this sector.

Hawker Accident at Aspen

On February 21, 2022, the crew and four passengers aboard a Hawker 800 nearly lost their lives when the twin-engine business jet sailed off the end of Runway 33 into soft snow at Aspen Pitkin County Airport (ASE), Colorado, during its takeoff run. The aircraft sustained substantial damage to the right wing and fuselage.

Unique to this accident was the wind that morning. “The ATIS indicated the wind was from 170° at 18 knots and gusting to 30 knots,” according to the NTSB’s final report. That represented nearly a direct tailwind at takeoff. The Hawker certification limits the aircraft to a tailwind component of no more than 10 knots for landing or takeoff.

I took a special interest in this accident because I’ve flown in and out of ASE many times and also flew the Hawker 800.

To pilots unfamiliar with the region, Aspen Airport, with a field elevation of nearly 8,500 feet, is nestled in the Rockies between peaks that quickly rise above 14,000 feet. For turbine operators, Aspen is pretty much a one-way in, one-way-out airport; land Runway 15 and depart Runway 33 under all weather conditions. Air carrier operators require special training to use the few instrument approaches to the airport. Most business aviation crews operating at ASE take advantage of the unique training offered by Flight Safety International and CAE, which outlines the variety of hazards any crew might face during various times of the year. This unique geography and weather conditions make flying in and out of ASE challenging and potentially dangerous, requiring all pilots to be constantly cautious and aware of the risks.

The PIC on this Part 91 flight was experienced, with more than 5,000 in type, while the FO had logged about 270 hours in the Hawker. Despite the reported wind, the Hawker crew planned to depart Runway 33 on this chilly February morning. They also planned to use a flap 15 setting to reduce the aircraft’s ground roll on the 8,000-foot runway. At its takeoff weight of 23,916 lbs., the crew’s flight planning software indicated the aircraft would require a takeoff distance of 5,972 feet. This distance was calculated using the standard aircraft limitations, including the 10-knot tailwind limit. Flight planning tools don’t offer takeoff numbers for operations that exceed the aircraft’s limitations.

Instantaneous Wind

At 1131:54 Mountain time, the controller provided the [Hawker crew a] takeoff clearance for runway 33 and reported the wind was from 160° at 16 kts, gusting to 25 kts. In addition, the controller provided the “instantaneous” wind, which was from 180° at 10 kts. The captain reported that “at takeoff clearance, constant winds were reported by the tower at [180° at 10 kts], within aircraft maximum tailwind takeoff limitation.”

Of note, no other ATC facility in the US, except at ASE, appears to use the phrase “instantaneous wind.” Having worked at ASE for 11 years, the airport tower manager (ATM), “When asked why they [controllers] chose to use the wording “instantaneous wind” as part of the phraseology when reporting Stand Alone Wind (SAW), said he was not sure where it came from. The ATM stated he believed pilots feel pressured and will take more chances at Aspen because of the clients they are transporting.”

“According to [cockpit voice recorder] CVR audio, the takeoff was initiated at 1132:26. The captain performed a static takeoff, and the first officer made all the standard callouts: airspeed alive, 80 kts, takeoff decision speed (V1) at 111 kts, and rotate (VR) at 121 kts. The captain reported that, at VR, he applied back pressure on the yoke; however, the airplane would not become airborne. The yoke did not have any air resistance or any pressure on it as we normally experience in Hawkers (the weight and pressure on the yoke felt the same as though…the airplane was stationary on [the] ground).” With 3,300 feet of runway remaining, the Hawker actually achieved a ground speed of 165 knots, but the aircraft stubbornly refused to fly. “After a few seconds, without any indication the airplane would take off, the captain called for and performed an aborted takeoff by reducing the engines to idle, deploying the thrust reversers, and applying the brakes. The airplane subsequently departed the end of the runway into the snow. The captain secured the airplane and assisted in the evacuation of the passengers. No one was injured in the accident.”

The accident report and the accompanying evidence docket included crew interviews and text of the CVR. Before the Hawker began its takeoff roll, the recording captured the tower controller clearing other aircraft to land on Runway 15, during which the winds were reported as “170 at 15, gust 24” and “160 at 11, gust 24.” The crew could also be heard running through their standard pre-takeoff checklist items.

Interestingly, the CVR did not record any conversation between the pilots – no warning from the captain, who was the PIC, nor from the FO, who was the pilot monitoring – indicating any concerns about whether the aircraft would take off successfully with such a strong tailwind.

The question of course is why?

One airline pilot who commented on the Aspen crash said, “Instantaneous wind is something that was developed exclusively for ASE. At SkyWest, we were allowed to take instantaneous winds into consideration, but we also had to take into consideration the entirety of the wind situation and make a judgment call to make a safe departure or landing.”

Rob Mark, publisher

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3 Responses to “Flight Planning Demands a Dose of Common Sense”

  1. Chris Nicosia Says:

    Excellent piece. I think this comment says it all for these guys who fly corporate/fractional Part 91 operations.
    “The ATM stated he believed pilots feel pressured and will take more chances at Aspen because of the clients they are transporting.”

    Interesting a captain with that many hours in type obviously has flow in/out of ASE before and most likely thought this departure wouldn’t be a problem….. IMHO.
    Complacency will get us every time. I’m happy no one was hurt/injured.

  2. Robert Mark Says:

    Good points Chris. Now if the wind that day was blowing at 12 knots and the tailwind component is 10 knots, maybe … I might possibly go 14 knots.

    But it was 30 knots.

    And to top it off, the wind had only died down instantaneously for a few seconds. And even the guy in the right seat said nothing.

    That’s like a person who keeps asking questions about the same topic and only quits when they get the answer they want.

    So, this is beyond complacency to me. This is lunacy.


  3. Gregg Says:

    Well, these guys obviously f’ed up. I will credit them with the abort. I used to operate in and out of KASE.
    ….a couple of things here, #1 Aspen-Pitkin Co airport field elevation is 7838′ MSL and #2 THERE IS A DOWNHILL SLOPE ON RUNWAY 33 OF 2%. In my 52 years of being in the aviation business, I have never run across a pilot that applies slope in his/her’s TOLD card. Heck, on a hot day in NY, you can be field length limited taking off Rwy 34 out of KHPN in a Hawker 800 with its nearly 1% uphill slope!
    I appreciate the crew wanting to get the pax to their destination but some time you have to say enough is enough.
    Complacency is a tough thing to deal with….Everything is OK until it isn’t!

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