Local officials aren’t sure whether a new Gulfstream private jet design complies with the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport’s 95-foot wingspan, and have asked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for an official finding.
With a tape measure, the wings of the Gulfstream 650 appear to be 99 feet and 7 inches. Yet Gulfstream’s official “lifting body” wingspan measurement is less than 94 feet.
Based on the lower measurement, the county airport gave initial local clearance for the planes to land in Aspen once they are operational.
After a citizens group raised concerns about the actual wingspan in March, airport director Jim Elwood reached out to federal aviation officials for a finding. He is now awaiting an FAA measurement to determine whether the 650 complies with local code.
“It would seem like wingspan measurements are a pretty intuitive thing, but that’s not always the case,” said County Manager Jon Peacock.
The discrepancy arose from the jets’ “winglets.” Those are the sections on the ends of wings that have traditionally risen at 90-degree angles from tips. In the 650 design, however, they extend at more like 45-degree angles from the wing tips — and appear to widen the wingspan.
Elwood said it’s a new design challenge that wasn’t contemplated when the county commissioners added the wingspan limit to the county code in the 1990s.
“These kinds of winglets didn’t even exist 15 years ago, so it’s an interesting question,” Elwood said.
The business jets aren’t yet operating here — or anywhere — as they await FAA certification.
Gulfstream spokesperson Heidi Fedak said last week that the company expects 650s to be flying in late June or early July. She said that Aspen was still on their list of cleared airports. A photograph of the flight approach to Aspen was included in the buyer’s brochure for the new plane.
The official county restriction doesn’t address winglets. It bans anything with a “tip-to-tip wingspan of greater than 95 feet.”
Peacock speculated that the feds would likely conclude that the winglets do count toward wingspan and that the 650 won’t be cleared for Aspen flights.
If the FAA decrees that winglets don’t count toward wingspan, though, he said he will bring the issue to the county commissioners, in the hopes of adding more specific language to the wingspan code.
Such language could help guide the airport as plane technology evolves in the future, and allow the elected officials decide how to measure wings.
County officials are hoping for an official FAA response in the next week or two, Peacock said.
Cliff Runge, founder of the Citizens for Responsible Airport Development, viewed the airport’s initial clearance of the 650 with suspicion.
“If it will fit in a 96-foot garage door, then I think it fits county regulation,” Runge said.
An increasingly vocal critic of numerous aspects of the ongoing airport master planning effort, Runge wrote an email last week to his supporters about the 650 and his belief that Elwood was knowingly skirting the wingspan rule (see related letter, page 6).
Gulfstream doesn’t count its winglets as a “lifting surfaces,” which prompted the lack of clarity about their length, according to Elwood.
Runge cried foul, however.
“His ‘excuse’ to allow the aircraft to operate here is based on an aeronautical falsehood — that winglets are not lifting surfaces — a falsehood that he probably did not think anyone would pay attention to; or at least not enough attention to get caught telling,” he wrote.
Runge said his distrust of the county on the issue was not assuaged by its deference to the feds on the wing measurement.
“I don’t think anybody, when we did the 95-foot wingspan [limit], thought we’d be using technicalities to get around it,” Runge said. “Now Elwood’s going to the FAA to say, ‘Will you support my technicality?’”