Dining with Death: The 2001 Avjet Aspen crash
On the 29th of March 2001, a group of wealthy socialites from California chartered a business jet to take them to the resort town of Aspen, Colorado for a dinner party and ski trip. But the plane never reached its destination; instead, the Gulfstream III slammed into a hillside just short the airport, killing all 18 passengers and crew. The circumstances of the crash immediately aroused suspicion: Aspen-Pitkin County Airport did not allow night landings and had instituted a curfew at 6:58 p.m., but the crash occurred at 7:02. Why was the crew trying to approach the airport after the curfew and in the middle of a raging snowstorm? And why was there a passenger in the cockpit at the time of the crash? As the clues piled up, the National Transportation Safety Board began to unravel the story of an entitled client with a pushy attitude who wanted to get to the dinner party on time — no matter the cost.
When one finds oneself in possession of a substantial amount of money, it becomes tempting to charter a private plane rather than fly commercial. Flying on a business jet is more comfortable, faster, and more prestigious, but it has one main drawback: it’s considerably less safe.
In 2001, one of dozens of companies offering small jets for hire to wealthy customers was Avjet, a medium-sized charter company based in Southern California. Avjet partnered with private aircraft owners to offer their planes for on-demand charter flights when the owners were not using them. This allowed the planes to earn money for both the owners and Avjet when they would otherwise be sitting in a hangar. The workhorse of Avjet’s fleet was the Gulfstream III, a popular twin-engine business jet which could seat up to 19 passengers. One of the Gulfstreams operated by Avjet was N303GA, a Gulfstream III owned by Andrew Vajna, founder of the defunct film studio Cinergi Pictures (best known for “Total Recall” and “Rambo”).
But on March 29th 2001, Vajna was not using the plane, and Avjet instead rented it to Robert Jay New, a financier in the Los Angeles entertainment industry. New intended to fly himself and fourteen friends to a dinner party in Aspen, Colorado, followed by a weekend of skiing at the town’s famous resorts. The passengers represented a diverse array of backgrounds and ranged in age from 21 to 61. Doubtlessly all were looking forward to a luxurious weekend visiting Aspen’s high-end attractions.
The town of Aspen, located in the mountains of western Colorado, is home to just a few thousand people. But the ski resorts and scenic mountain vistas surrounding the town make it a popular destination for outdoor-oriented elites from around the world, and Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, the single-runway airfield serving the town, is one of the busiest in the region. The constant stream of private jet traffic belies the difficulty of landing there, however. The runway elevation is more than 7,800 feet above sea level, and the field is located in the bottom of a narrow river valley with mountain ranges on both sides rising to between 11,000 and 14,000 feet. By 2001, it had already been the scene of numerous accidents and incidents, some of them fatal, caused by pilots misjudging the region’s formidable terrain and inclement weather.
In charge of flying Robert New and his entourage to Aspen that day were Captain Robert Frisbie and First Officer Peter Kowalczyk, a pair who had been flying N303GA together for months. At 2:38 p.m. local time, they picked up the plane in Burbank, California, and flew it on a short 11-minute positioning flight to Los Angeles International Airport, where the passengers were supposed to be waiting.
But when they arrived at LAX, the passengers were nowhere to be found. This was a problem because noise restrictions over Aspen’s affluent outskirts prohibited the Gulfstream III from landing there at night. Sunset in Aspen that day was at 6:28 p.m. mountain time, and as a rule of thumb nightfall would follow 30 minutes later, at 6:58. After accounting for the loss of one hour due to the change of time zones, that didn’t leave them a whole lot of time to get there before dark. At 3:30, with the scheduled departure time having come and gone, the Avjet charter dispatcher called Robert New’s business assistant, who had booked the flight, and asked where the passengers were. The dispatcher reported that if the flight didn’t leave by 3:55, they wouldn’t be able to land in Aspen. It turned out that the passengers were standing around chatting in the airport parking lot, apparently unaware that there was any urgency attached to their departure time.
As Frisbie and Kowalczyk soon discovered, the noise restrictions weren’t the only thing preventing them from landing in Aspen at night — there was a safety reason as well. Just the previous week, a Federal Aviation Administration inspector had flown the published instrument approach procedure into Aspen and found its safety to be questionable. (An instrument approach is conducted in low visibility conditions, as opposed to a visual approach, which relies on the pilots maintaining line of sight with the runway at all times, and does not require as strict a procedure.) The only published instrument procedure for landing in Aspen was to descend in a series of step-downs to 10,200 feet, maintain that altitude until catching sight of the airport, then circle around and land visually. However, pilots were also allowed to perform a straight-in approach without circling the airport, as long as they could spot the runway in time to line up.
The safety issue came when the FAA inspector discovered that the minimum of 10,200 feet was in conflict with unlighted high terrain near the circling pattern which could be avoided easily enough during the day but would be difficult to spot in the dark. Therefore, the FAA issued a notice to airmen, or NOTAM, on March 27th advising that “circling minimums NA [not authorized] at night.” Because the circling approach was the only published instrument approach procedure for Aspen, this effectively banned all instrument approaches at night — including the straight-in approach, which was based off the circling approach procedure. On the ground at LAX, a weather specialist informed the pilots of N303GA of the rule change. But the NOTAM did not clarify the connection between the circling approach (which was explicitly affected) and the other instrument approach variants (which were implicitly affected), leaving the scope of the rule change open to interpretation.
Shortly thereafter, the passengers arrived and began to board the plane. As they did so, one of the pilots told a passenger that they might have to divert to the nearby town of Rifle if they were unable to reach Aspen before the 6:58 p.m. curfew. Robert New overheard this conversation and asked his business assistant to call Avjet and have them tell the pilot to “keep his comments to himself.” Clearly New was not enthused by the idea of landing anywhere other than Aspen. His displeasure only increased when one of the pilots personally informed him that they might have to divert. He became visibly angry and told his business assistant to call Avjet again and tell them that the plane would not be diverted under any circumstances. He had landed in Aspen at night before, he insisted, and he would do so again.
N303GA finally departed LAX at 4:11 p.m., 16 minutes after the self-imposed deadline of 3:55, and 41 minutes after their scheduled departure time. The pilots estimated that they would arrive in Aspen at 6:46 local time, 12 minutes before the beginning of the curfew. This apparently resulted in lengthy negotiations with the company’s charter scheduler, who reported that at 6:30, the captain said it was important to land in Aspen because “the customer spent a substantial amount of money on dinner.”
At 6:37, First Officer Kowalczyk asked for the approach briefing, a formal step-by-step discussion of how they would approach the airport.
Captain Frisbie replied, “We’re probably gonna make it a visual… if we don’t get the airport over here, we’ll go ahead and shoot that approach.” Frisbie’s hope was that they could save time by catching sight of the airport early and performing a visual approach, without having to use the instrument procedure at all. The instrument procedure with the careful series of step-downs could be used as a backup if visibility did not permit them to see the runway. To this, he added, “We’re not going to have a bunch of extra gas, so we only get to shoot it once and then we’re going to Rifle.” The terms had been set: they would only get one attempt to land in Aspen.
Unfortunately, the weather conditions at the airport that night were poor. Clouds blanketed everything between 12,000 and 16,000 feet, with pervasive light snow and occasional areas of heavier precipitation. Visibility was supposedly 18.5 kilometers (10nm), but on the ground this figure varied considerably, and the average was trending downward. In a sign of the worsening conditions, at 6:44 a Canadair Challenger private jet reported that it had been unable to locate the runway and was going around. Captain Frisbie asked the controller if the Challenger was doing practice approaches or had missed the approach for real. The controller replied that the missed approach was indeed real, but that he had caught sight of the plane at 10,400 feet as it climbed away.
Now the pilots began to look for landmarks they could use to guide them to the runway. The approach course roughly followed a river and a highway alongside it, which could lead them directly to the airport. Between 6:46 and 6:47, Frisbie spotted the highway and several towns while Kowalczyk briefly caught sight of the river, but it seems they were unable to maintain visual as the plane entered the clouds. It wasn’t all bad news, however: at 6:47 the controller announced that a Cessna had successfully spotted the airport and was making a straight-in approach. This gave the pilots hope that they too might be able to land, but it was becoming clear that a visual approach was not possible. Captain Frisbie called the controller and said, “I can almost see up the canyon from here, but I don’t know the terrain well enough or I’d take the visual.”
Shortly thereafter, First Officer Kowalczyk commented, “Remember that crazy guy in his Lear[jet] when we were on the ground in Aspen last time, and he [said he could] see the airport when he couldn’t see it?” Captain Frisbie didn’t reply.
Now the pilots tried again to spot the river and the highway, but Kowalczyk said, “It’s clouds over here on this area and I can’t see it.”
“But it’s right there,” said Frisbie. “I mean, we’ll shoot it from here — I mean, we’re here — but we only get to do it once.”
At 6:53, more bad news: another Canadair Challenger had missed its approach. “That’s not good,” Kowalczyk commented.
At 6:54, a surprising twist: the flight attendant entered the cockpit and said that a passenger would like to come sit in the jump seat. The pilots assented, and the male passenger came up to the cockpit and strapped himself in. It’s not clear who this passenger was — but it may well have been Robert New, given the deferential treatment the pilots gave him.
Captain Frisbie quickly apprised the passenger of the situation. “The weather’s gone down and they’re not making it in,” he said, referring to some of the planes ahead of them.
“Oh really,” said the passenger.
The controller now cleared them for an instrument approach, although the pilots had not conducted the relevant briefing (which would have covered the approach configuration, approach speed, minimum descent altitude, and other crucial items). He then announced that visibility north of the airport had decreased to 2.7km (2nm), a precipitous drop compared to the last weather report. Finally, he handed N303GA over to the local controller, who cleared the flight to land.
At 6:58, the first Canadair Challenger reported that its second approach had failed and it was going around again. “Are we clear?” the passenger asked.
“Not yet,” Frisbie replied. “The guy in front of us didn’t make it either.”
Despite the fact that the curfew was now in effect, the pilots continued their descent toward the airport, configuring the plane for landing as falling snow streaked by the windows.
The next step down altitude was supposed to be 10,400 feet, but First Officer Kowalczyk did not announce that they were approaching this altitude, and they continued to descend straight through it. As the plane passed through 10,000 feet, 200 feet below the minimum descent altitude for the instrument procedure, the local controller asked them if they could see the runway, as was standard practice when a plane dropped below the MDA. The pilots told her that they had the runway in sight, even though they were still in an area of clouds and were probably too far from the runway to see it given the reported visibility. This suggests that they might have been lying, because if they told the truth — that they were below 10,200 feet and could not see the runway — the controller would have ordered them to go around, and they would have had to divert to Rifle.
A few seconds later, Kowalczyk said, “to the right is good.” Given that the airport was ahead of them and slightly to their left, this was further evidence that they couldn’t actually see it.
At 7:01, Captain Frisbie asked, “Where’s it at?”
“To the right,” Kowalczyk said, although this was still false. It was clear that the pilots could not, in fact, see the runway, and the plane was trending ever rightward of the runway heading. The plane broke out of the clouds at an elevation of 9,300 feet, but with an intense snow shower still underway, visibility was too restricted to catch sight of the runway. Still, they kept descending at 2,200 feet per minute, well above the normal rate. If they didn’t level off, they would impact the ground before reaching the runway.
Shortly thereafter, the plane’s ground proximity warning system announced that they were 500 feet above the ground. However, this older model GPWS did not have a built-in terrain database and could not warn them that they were on a collision course with the hillside just below and to the right of the runway threshold.
At 7:01 and 47 seconds, Captain Frisbie possibly caught sight of the runway, and he began to turn back to the left. As the left bank steepened, the GPWS called out “400,” at which point Captain Frisbie wordlessly accelerated to full power, presumably in an attempt to abandon the approach. But the plane had dropped into a valley north of the runway, and the ground was rapidly rising up to meet them. In a desperate attempt to pull away from the hillside, Frisbie banked the plane 49 degrees to the left, triggering a loud “BANK ANGLE” warning as the plane streaked across the snowy scrubland. The left wingtip soon struck the ground, sending the jet cartwheeling onward through the snow, throwing debris in every direction. The plane cleared a ravine, slammed into the opposite side, and slid 60 meters up a hill, coming to rest on the edge of highway 82, surrounded by flames.
The local controller caught sight of the plane just as it began turning to the left, and when the bank angle increased past 40 degrees, she judged that it was about to crash and immediately picked up the emergency phone. As a fiery explosion rocked the north end of the airport, the general alarm began to sound at the airport’s fire station, and fire trucks rushed to the scene. Unfortunately, they found that the plane had totally disintegrated, and all 18 passengers and crew were already dead. One of the first witnesses on the scene described finding two passengers lying in the middle of a road, still strapped into their seats; one had a faint pulse, but it quickly faded. By the time ambulances arrived at the crash site, there was nothing anyone could do. Although Aspen had seen many plane crashes, this one was by far the deadliest, and a major investigation would need to be conducted.
The National Transportation Safety Board first reconstructed the flight path using radar data, because the plane had no flight data recorder. This data showed that the plane had descended to 10,100 feet prior to passing the final step-down, where the minimum was 10,400; leveled off for 10 seconds; then commenced a steep descent which continued until impact. The pilots had the right to descend below the absolute minimum descent altitude of 10,200 feet only if they had the runway in sight, but despite telling the controller that they did, their statements on the cockpit voice recording suggested that they did not. This flight path was maintained until a few seconds before the crash, when the captain began an increasing roll to the left. Because Frisbie didn’t say anything during those last seconds, it’s not clear why he initiated this maneuver, but NTSB investigators concluded it was either because he saw the runway to his left and wanted to line up with it, because he wanted to avoid high ground by dodging left over the river valley, or both. Unfortunately, this move came too late, and the steep bank in fact hindered the plane’s ability to climb — without this botched escape maneuver, it is difficult to say whether the crash would have happened at all.
The biggest question, then, was why the pilots told the controller they could see the airport when they could not. Why not accept that they couldn’t land and proceed to their alternate like the other private jets ahead of them? Furthermore, by that point they were already past the curfew and were obligated to abandon their approach. Why didn’t they?
Interviews with Robert New’s business associate and the Avjet charter scheduler revealed the infuriating answer: New really, really wanted to make it to his dinner party. His insistence that they avoid a diversion at all costs was so strong that he called the company twice to list his demands, and by 6:30 these demands had reached the pilots, as evidenced by their conversation with the scheduler. Unlike a scheduled flight, where the pilots are beholden only to the company, Frisbie and Kowalczyk likely felt that they were beholden to New; after all, he was footing quite a large bill for the charter service, and if Avjet didn’t get him to Aspen, he might choose to spend his money elsewhere in the future. The fact that New probably came up to the cockpit during the approach shows that he was serious about compelling the pilots to land, regulations be damned. The fact that the NOTAM stating “circling minimums not authorized at night” did not clearly state that it also applied to straight-in instrument approaches (like the one N303GA was attempting) might also have led them to believe that by landing at night on a straight-in approach, they would only be violating a local noise ordinance, and not a safety regulation. The local controller, who theoretically could have stopped them, was unaware of the new regulation because she never received a copy of the NOTAM from the Denver control center.
The pilots’ decision to fly below the minimum descent altitude therefore rested on a convergence of factors. First, they were under pressure from their client to land no matter what. Second, because of this pressure, they expended most of their energy looking outside the plane for the runway and other nearby landmarks; this distracted them from the critical task of monitoring their altitude and descent rate, as evidenced by the absence of the first officer’s required altitude callouts throughout much of the descent. Their expectation was that they would descend out of the clouds, spot the runway, and then level off; instead, they descended right into a column of heavy snowfall and didn’t see the runway until right before they hit the ground. And third, they had not properly briefed the approach. In addition to all the items missing from the approach briefing, the pilots also failed to discuss what conditions would trigger a go-around or how they would perform one, despite admitting that there was a high chance the approach would fail.
These three factors, and particularly the last two, have killed countless aviators since the very dawn of flight. Descending below the minimum descent altitude, failing to spot the runway, and colliding with terrain is perhaps the quintessential aircraft accident. The fact that these pilots made that mistake cast serious doubt on the quality of their training. This doubt proved to be well founded: the NTSB discovered that First Officer Kowalczyk had failed three check rides, including one due to “poor ground reference maneuvers and approach and landing,” the exact areas where he made mistakes on the accident flight. The NTSB also noted that the pilots had not received training in crew resource management (CRM) — the cornerstone of effective cockpit communication. Although CRM training was required for scheduled airlines (defined under Part 121 of the federal aviation regulations), Avjet operated under Part 135, which outlines the obligations of charter airlines and air taxi services. Part 121 holds carriers to “the highest level of safety” while part 135 only requires a “high level of safety;” unfortunately, one of the items cut out in that downgrade was CRM training. Thus, the pilots were not taught how to effectively distribute workload and communicate about risk, allowing them to make the exact same sort of mistake that brought down so many airliners in the 1960s and 1970s.
However, none of this would have mattered if the pilots had followed the rules and diverted to Rifle as soon as it became clear that they could not land before nightfall. The fact that they were violating regulations by landing at night was not itself the cause of the crash, but while landing at a dangerous airport like Aspen during poor weather, the onset of night should have given them pause. The terrain, the weather, and the level of ambient light were all important risk factors affecting the approach into Aspen; taken together, they suggested a level of risk which was simply too high. Diverting to Rifle would have eliminated the first two risk factors, making a safe landing more likely. The ability to assess risk in this way is a key part of safety-oriented airmanship, a trait which Frisbie and Kowalczyk clearly lacked. Rigorous training in this area, such as that received by many modern airline pilots, would even have allowed them to consider the pressure from their customer as a risk factor and account for it in their assessment of the situation. A pilot who could step back and craft this holistic view of the flight would have made very different decisions that night.
The crash also shed light on the question of darkness: specifically, when does it begin? The US Navy defines nightfall as the point at which the sun is six degrees below the horizon. After this point terrain features can no longer be discerned. Pilots use a figure of 30 minutes after sunset, which is usually not more than five minutes off from the Navy’s method. But at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, the position of the runway in a steep-sided valley meant that the airport actually fell into shadow a full 79 minutes before sunset, and was covered in total darkness much earlier than the official onset of night. On this matter, the NTSB wrote, “This accident reveals that the aeronautical definition of night does not adequately take into account darkness in mountainous terrain.” This extra piece of information wouldn’t have stopped the pilots of N303GA, who were intent on breaking the curfew anyway, but the NTSB felt that in the future it could prove crucial to pilots’ decision-making processes.
As a result of the crash, the FAA revised the text of its NOTAM from “circling minimums not authorized at night” to “procedure not authorized at night,” clarifying that all instrument approach procedures for Aspen were invalid after nightfall. Avjet also issued a memo to all of its pilots informing them that when landing at Aspen and three other mountain airports, they must be on the ground before sunset no matter what, and that all passengers must be informed of this rule. The memo also stated that if pilots experience pressure from passengers who want them to violate landing curfews, they are required to report this to the chief pilot. And finally, Avjet banned passengers from riding in the cockpit jumpseat. But the most lasting contribution to aviation safety was perhaps the impression that the crash left on the charter industry. No other accident more clearly emphasized the danger of the “client is always right” mentality. The client, in fact, is often wrong; Robert New was a financier, not an aviation expert, and it was not his place to decide whether or not it was safe to land in Aspen that night. His recklessness and entitlement contributed to the deaths of 17 other people, most of whom were innocent of all wrongdoing. For acquiescing to his hot-headed demands, Avjet ended up being held legally liable, and the company was ordered to pay out millions of dollars to the families of the victims. Avjet thus learned the hard way that when choosing between safety and customer retention, neglecting the former can turn out to be a lot more expensive in the long run than neglecting the latter.
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