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Pilot Errors Cited in 2001 Aspen Crash

Inquiry: Report points to 'numerous' mistakes in landing of the charter jet in which 18 were killed last year. Improved training of crews urged.


WASHINGTON — The pilots of a charter jet from Los Angeles that crashed last year in Aspen, Colo., made "numerous" errors as they rushed to make an instrument landing at dusk in snowy weather, federal investigators concluded Tuesday.

The National Transportation Safety Board's final report on the March 29 crash that killed 18 people also called for improved training of charter crews on the management of complex, rapidly evolving situations. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, charters have become increasingly popular with well-heeled travelers who want to avoid airlines and the long security lines at airports.

Dealing with the spreading darkness, swirling snow showers and looming slopes, the pilots of the jet that crashed also had other pressures that evening, NTSB investigators said.

The flight had left Los Angeles International Airport about 40 minutes late, and Robert Frisbie, the pilot in command, and co-pilot Peter Kowalczyk knew that they would only have one try to land before an Aspen airport curfew took effect.

The passengers who had hired the jet for a ski weekend were adamant about landing at the town's airport. The plane's cockpit recorder picked up the voice of an unidentified male passenger in the cockpit jump seat, and NTSB investigators said his questions added to the pressures on the captain.

"Clearly, if they made a missed approach, they would not have been able to land at Aspen that night," said NTSB chair Marion Blakey.

Frisbie was at the controls as the plane began its final approach. The voice recorder showed that he and Kowalczyk skipped over required pre-landing discussions that would have covered such topics as what to do if they couldn't see the runway and had to go around.

It was the beginning of a series of mistakes that would quickly prove fatal.

"The captain felt ... that he would get below whatever low clouds were in the area and would have no difficulty finding the airport," said NTSB investigator Dave Kirchgessner. "If they had made a go-around ... we would not be sitting here talking about it today."

The plane came in too steeply, according to the radar data. At 10,200 feet, it crossed an imaginary line--the "minimum descent altitude"--above the Aspen airport. Pilots making an instrument approach to Aspen are not supposed to go below that line unless they can see the runway. The line is there to keep planes well above any obstacle in the mountainous region.

But at 8,400 feet, Frisbie was still not sure if he could see the runway. "Where's it at?" he asked Kowalczyk. To the right, came the answer. But the runway was actually to the left. It's not clear what Kowalczyk saw, but it may have been a road near the airport.

"For an experienced crew, there were a number of surprising issues," said Kirchgessner. "What I feel happened is that the captain was very fixated on making a visual approach."

At the last moment, the plane made a steep banking turn to the left in an effort to get back on course, but it was too late. The plane crashed into sloping terrain about 2,400 feet short of the runway and exploded in a fireball.

The twin-engine Gulfstream III was operated by Avjet Corp. of Burbank. Ken Seals, the company's director of operations, said Tuesday that he did not dispute the NTSB findings.

Avjet has changed its landing procedures to require pilots to discuss the risk of crashing into terrain, Seals said. The firm has also taken steps to prevent pilots from being distracted by passengers.

The plane had been chartered by Robert Neu, a financier connected to the entertainment industry. Aboard were 14 of his friends. A flight attendant was the third member of the crew.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Les Dorr said the agency would take a close look at the NTSB recommendation for improved training of charter crews. The simulator-based training would teach techniques routinely used by airline crews to ensure attention to detail and effective communication.

The NTSB also criticized the FAA over the handling and wording of a safety directive issued two days before the crash, citing it as a contributing factor.

That directive prohibited nighttime instrument landings at Aspen. The Avjet plane was trying to land a few minutes after the official nightfall, 6:58.

The safety advisory never reached FAA flight controllers at the Aspen tower because the agency's regional center in Denver did not forward it to them.

The Avjet pilots were aware of the restriction, the NTSB said. But it may not have been worded explicitly enough to register. It referred to a "circling" approach, a type of instrument landing.

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