Crews finished on Monday night removing the wreckage of Sunday’s private plane crash from the runway at Sardy Field, and the airport will reopen today.
A Denver-based team from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded its initial field investigation of the crash Monday evening, allowing authorities to move the charred remains of the Bombardier Challenger 600 off-site, where the agency’s inquiry will continue for months.
While the official investigation is just beginning, gusting winds appear to have factored into the crash and far exceeded recommended maximum tail winds for landing a Bombardier Challenger 600.
In audio recordings from air traffic control before the crash, a pilot stated the plane had a tail wind of 30 knots on a failed approach, before attempting the second landing that ended with one dead and two injured. An air traffic controller informed the pilot that tail winds had averaged 16 knots and gusted up to 25 knots in the minute before the second attempt.
The recommended maximum tail wind for landing a Challenger or compatible jet is 10 knots, said Marc Moller, an aviation accident litigation specialist who has represented clients in Colorado mountain crashes over the last 30 years, including a 2001 crash in Aspen that killed 18.
“From a preliminary look at things, this is a wind gust airplane control accident,” he said. “It’s not the best-planned landing, as sadly the events demonstrated. ... My take on this is that there was a heavy tail wind pushing the aircraft down the runway and it was gusting.”
The missed approach indicated the pilots were aware of the challenging conditions, said Moller.
“That also suggests that the crew, sadly, was aware of the problems and having some difficulty having a routine landing,” he added. “They knew this was going to be a complicated landing.”
The choice whether or not to land in gusty conditions is up to individual aircraft operators, said airport assistant aviation director Brian Grefe.
An NTSB team arrived in Aspen on Sunday night to begin the agency’s official field investigation, but was not able to enter the plane until after 3 p.m. Monday due to concerns about remaining fuel in the aircraft.
NTSB air safety investigator Courtney Liedler said the agency was looking into the flight crew’s operation of the plane, the aircraft itself and the weather to determine the cause of the crash. She said they were not ruling out any possible causes.
“We are looking into weather, but we’re not limiting any factors right now. ... At this point we’re just collecting facts. We’re in very early stages of the investigation,” she said at an afternoon news conference.
Liedler said crash investigations typically take 12 to 18 months. But, she added, preliminary results should be out within a week of the conclusion of their fact-finding time in Aspen.
The airport remained closed all day Monday, stranding thousands of outbound travelers in the Aspen area (see related story).
The NTSB and local authorities stabilized the plane’s charred fuselage by attaching a strap from a crane to the aircraft’s remaining wing, allowing investigators to enter it.
Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Firefighters work late on Monday evening on the wreckage of a private jet that crashed on Sunday afternoon at the Aspen airport. Personnel spent an arduous day preparing the jet for removal from the runway, ensuring there was no additional fire hazard by shutting down batteries, draining oil and verifying there was no remaining jet fuel in the plane.
The plane remained on the Owl Creek Road side of the runway most of Monday, where it came to a stop upside down after tumbling down the runway after Sunday’s crash.
When the wreckage was stabilized and deemed safe, NTSB officials boarded the plane and executed components of the investigation which needed to occur before the wreckage could be moved. Two priorities were recovering the cockpit voice recorder, commonly referred to as the black box, and deactivating the emergency locator transmitter (ELT).
Once critical components of the investigation were complete, the local incident management team coordinated efforts to load the wreckage onto a flat-bed trailer using a crane and a large tow truck. The aircraft was initially rolled over onto its undercarriage to create a more stable position for loading it onto the trailer. The loading operation took from approximately 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Officials from Bombardier and GE Aviation, the plane’s manufacturers, arrived Monday afternoon to assist with the investigation. Jet fuel was thought to remain in the plane, making it a threat to investigators, but was found to have all leaked out or burned off upon inspection.
Damage to the runway is minor and limited to broken lights and such, according to Grefe, and will not further delay the opening of the airport.
“Repair time for those is relatively minor,” he said.
Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said rescuer safety was the top priority at the airport, vowing not to reopen it until the debris can be safely cleared from the runway.
“I’m committed not to accelerate any efforts to move that aircraft for passenger convenience,” said DiSalvo. “We’ve already had a tragedy here and the last thing I need is another one.”
The private jet crashed on landing at the airport Sunday at 12:23 p.m. Two men were piloting the plane and a third pilot was the lone passenger. Co-pilot Sergio Emilio Carranza Brabata, 54, was pronounced dead at the scene Sunday.
The sheriff’s office identified Miguel Henriqez and Moises Carranza as the other two passengers. Both were flown to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction for treatment on Sunday. Henriqez was in critical condition, according to St. Mary’s spokesperson Kim Williams, designating him an “acutely ill patient with major complications.” Carranza was in serious condition. Their injuries were traumatic, but not related to the fire resulting from the crash, according to the sheriff’s office. NTSB had not spoken to either of them, due to their medical condition, said Liedler.
Both survivors are Mexican nationals. They were flying from Toluca, Mexico to Aspen on Sunday, and stopped to go through customs in Tucson, Ariz.
DiSalvo reported seeing one of the men walk from the crash to a stretcher on Sunday afternoon. He credited the quick work of airport firefighters for saving the men’s lives, saying the plane would have been fully engulfed in flames had they not extinguished the fire within a few minutes of the crash.
“I have no doubt, based on my experience and from what I’ve heard, that action alone single-handedly saved these people’s lives,” DiSalvo said. “The Pitkin County airport and the crash fire rescue team need credit for that.”
Normal airport operations will resume as airlines are able to coordinate scheduling and staffing needs. Contact the airlines for detailed flight information.