A Valley So Low, A Mountain So High
- Chris Tranbarger
It's highly possible that I'm one of those pilots that actually enjoys flying in the Colorado mountain airports of Aspen, Eagle/Vail, Rifle, Telluride, and Hayden. Each offers its own challenges of surrounding terrain, runway limitations, instrument approaches, unique weather patterns, and arrival/departure paths. And each offers little, if any, room for erroneous or careless decision making and subpar airmanship.
My first flights into the Colorado mountains were in a twin-turbine propeller aircraft conducting commuter airline operations at Durango, Cortez, Montrose, and Grand Junction. Though these airports are not without their challenges, things changed when I began flying charter flights in turbofan aircraft into the aforementioned airports.
Thinking of my first flight into Aspen, I recall my fellow crewmember and I planning the trip, reviewing performance, weather, and airport information. I also remember him briefing the approach and landing plan quite a distance from the airport, discussing when we'd abandon the approach and divert and the importance of being configured—fully configured—well before I thought typically necessary. I may have taken his cautious attitude a bit lightly, but that changed somewhere near Red Table VOR. Descending out of 16,000 feet with spoilers deployed and attempting to slow and configure in a jet aircraft that just doesn't like to slow down at the required descent rate, I began to understand his cautious attitude and advance planning.
Of course I learned much on that flight and gained a tremendous respect for real mountain flying, proper predeparture preparation, and a thoroughly briefed arrival plan. Advanced planning and accurate knowledge of the weather is critical to successfully negotiating these airports. Knowledge of the terrain and escape paths is also critical. But also, a local knowledge of how traffic is managed may be a factor that a flat-lander pilot has not encountered.
Approaching to land at Aspen that first time, I was surprised to hear ATC advise of opposite direction traffic that had just taken off as we were cleared to land. My thought was "can we land first!?" I now realize that to manage the volume of traffic that Aspen often must accommodate and the limitations due to weather, terrain of one-way-in / one-way-out , simultaneous opposite direction traffic is often necessary.
To better accommodate the traffic demands at Aspen, a change was implemented earlier this year to allow aircraft to request a VFR climb to 13,000'. Of course this places the full burden of "see and avoid" on the pilot, but does offer an alternative if inbound traffic is causing departure delays. The pilot must request this procedure and can expect to receive their IFR clearance but with a VFR climb restriction. I haven't had the opportunity to utilize the procedure, but it is available and may prove beneficial when the conditions permit the operation to be safely conducted.
I'm happy to say I'm still a fan of mountain flying with its associated demands but also its beauty and charming towns. I hope to always be a student of the craft and, therefore, always open to learning, and that makes me additionally grateful to have had pilots as mentors who cared enough to invest in me as an eager, young pilot and help me learn and grow as an airman.