Air traffic controllers working at the Aspen airport tower during this summer’s Lake Christine Fire received an award from the Federal Aviation Administration for teamwork.
Aspen controllers, who on normal days are managing a unique airspace operation, for more than two months confronted constantly shifting flight restrictions enacted to allow airplanes and helicopters fighting the fire the space they needed, without interference from traffic headed to and from ASE.
“Aspen has always employed a unique operation,” says a summary included in the nomination form Wayne Hall submitted to the FAA, which resulted in 15 Aspen tower employees receiving the FAA Regional Administrator’s Award for Teamwork, at a ceremony in Washington state on Oct. 17. “It operates nearly entirely as an opposite direction facility with high mountain terrain, high altitudes, confining valleys and very limited approach and departure path flexibility to and from the airport.”
The temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) were most intense in the weeks immediately following the fire that began on July 3, 11 miles northwest of the airport at the Lake Christine shooting range, but the fire persisted in some form through early September, said Hall, the air traffic manager at Aspen airport.
“The TFRs complicated the operation exponentially,” says the summary. “Controllers were unable to issue aircraft the most commonly used approaches into the airport. Each day brought different conditions and a new ‘best’ way to work the traffic flow into the airport.
“ … The air traffic controllers at Aspen tower were faced with a unique challenge during this event; how to safely guide aircraft around the TFR, through mountainous terrain and allow the aircraft time to complete stabilized approaches,” says the summary.
Aspen air traffic controllers “came into work every day not knowing” what the TFR and air traffic situation was going to look like, Hall said, requiring ingenuity to come up with work-around solutions.
“During the initial phases of the fire, all regularly used Standard Instrument Departures (SID) were unusable due to the TFRs. Controllers offered a seldom used SID that avoided the airspace. The challenge was that the procedure totally conflicted with the only arrival path into the airport. Controllers adapted and began running bursts of arrivals followed by bursts of departures in order to avoid those conflicts. They timed the ground and airborne holding to minimize delays,” the nomination summary says.
The tower also worked daily with wildfire incident commanders to hash out the dimensions of the TFR “to allow the most firefighting capability as possible while still allowing aircraft to operate at Aspen,” the nomination form says.
“Because of the dynamics and location of the fire, these meetings resulted in changing plans nearly every day,” the nomination says. “As the TFR dimensions were adjusted, Aspen controllers and operations supervisors readily adapted and quickly found ways to work under the constantly changing parameters.”
“On the grand scale,” Hall said, “we managed to move a lot more airplanes in and out of the airport that we would not have been able to” without the coordination with the fire incident commanders.
“Through all of this, the controllers remained positive and vigilant, adapting to the specific needs of the airborne firefighting, air taxi, commercial, and general aviation aircraft,” the nomination summary says.
Aspen’s airport is unique because planes take off and land in opposite directions — meaning both takeoffs and landing approaches occur in the airspace north of the airport, near the area of the fire.
Some of the alternate departure and arrival routes were notavailable to commercial aircraft because of carrier restrictions, Hall noted.
The tower was also dealing with the looming threat of a power outage, since the fire was burning near the main power lines supplying electricity to Aspen. Though the outage never happened, the crew worked to make sure emergency generators would be available to support landing aids and automated weather reporting.
Controllers receiving the award were Brandon Leavitt (tower supervisor), Kyle Gelroth (tower supervisor), Victor Alday, Luong An, Trevor Benthusen, Blair Cantrell, Matthew Croke, John Derrigan, Jennifer Finch, Jacob Greenwade, Nathaniel Osenga, Matthew Schlottman, Logan Schneider, Paden Sperling (displaced due to fire) and Evan Vigil, according to a list provided by Hall.
“While challenging, this situation demonstrated [the Aspen tower team’s] high level of professionalism, outstanding work ethic and commitment to teamwork,” says the nomination summary. “It has been a privilege working with controllers and operations supervisors during this demanding fire event. I am very proud of the team and am looking forward to them receiving the recognition they deserve. They performed superbly when it counted the most.”