In the heart of the Colorado Rockies sits one of the most notoriously challenging airports for pilots. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, it is one of just a handful of airports in the region that jet aircraft can legally takeoff and land at. And yet, it’s a popular destination year-round for both commercial and private aircraft—the proximity to ski slopes in the winter and summer activities make it an ideal destination for any aviation client. Extensive planning in advance and a deep understanding of current procedures is crucial to a safe flight in and out of Aspen. With appropriate training and planning, plus learning and operating with pilots who are familiar with the airport, pilots can help maintain the excellent safety record of Colorado’s most beautiful airport!
Aspen-Pitkin County Airport (ASE) is a Class D airport in central Colorado, located in the middle of high terrain in the Rocky Mountains. Ski slopes are visible from the end of the runway in the winter, and it is surrounded by a number of prominent peaks. The airport has one runway that is over 8,000 feet long, and sits at an elevation of almost 8,000 feet above sea level.
Aspen’s unique terrain placement means that aircraft must takeoff from runway 33, but land on runway 15—that’s right, there’s one way in and one way out. The terrain to the northwest, while still treacherous, allows for enough obstacle clearance to meet various single engine departure requirements. The airport offers two approaches, both of which are considered to be circling because they are significantly offset from the runway. The most commonly utilized approach is the RNAV (GPS)-F, which has minimums of over 10,000 feet MSL—that’s almost 2,000 feet above the airport elevation. The final approach fix is situated at just over 12,000 feet MSL, and beyond that aircraft are required to descend below the high peaks that surround the airport. The glide slope to the runway is much steeper than the average approach, so airspeed management is crucial to a stable approach. At busy times of the year, aircraft will be landing just after another aircraft has departed. Adhering to air traffic control instructions is crucial to maintaining safe operations.
Depending on the time of year, or even the time of day, flying into Aspen is an ever-changing challenge that requires constant attention to the conditions. For example, the busy season around the holidays, or any other winter weekend, may very well involve flow control from ATC, which can cause delays for both inbound and outbound aircraft. Special attention should be paid to fuel planning, in case of holding or extensive vectors. Additionally, weather can sometimes cause major problems going into Aspen. With minimums much higher than a typical non-precision approach, it’s often necessary to file an alternate. There are only a handful of airports nearby that offer a suitable alternate—sometimes Denver or Grand Junction are the only viable options.