ASPEN, Colo. — A chartered jet that crashed near this ski resort, killing all 18 aboard, had abandoned its initial approach to the mountainous airport and was circling through steady snowfall for a second attempt to land when it exploded into a hillside, sources close to the investigation said Friday.
Two other chartered jets — one immediately ahead of the doomed plane and one right behind — also missed their first passes at the landing strip, pulling out at the last moment, several sources told the Los Angeles Times. Neither risked a second try, however, rerouting instead to another airport as poor weather and darkness closed in on the popular resort town.
The disclosures marked a difficult day for authorities Friday as they began to search for causes of the crash, to identify bodies in the wreckage strewn along busy state Highway 82, and to deal with safety issues raised by the escalating use of private charter aircraft that function almost as commercial carriers—but, in some cases, with fewer regulations.
No distress calls were reported from the Gulfstream III twin turbojet, which left Burbank, Calif., and stopped briefly at Los Angeles International Airport before departing for Aspen. The plane — owned by Airborne Charter Inc., a subsidiary of the film company Cinergi Pictures Entertainment — reached the resort at 7,800 feet in the Rocky Mountains about 7 p.m. local time, authorities said.
Carol Carmody, acting chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, offered a second-by-second account of the plane's approach, based on control-tower tapes, at a news briefing Friday.
Just seconds after 7 p.m., the pilot asked the tower by radio whether the runway lights were on. The tower immediately responded yes, then asked a few seconds later if the runway lights were yet in sight.
Six seconds passed and the pilot answered yes.
That was the pilot's last transmission, Carmody said. About 35 seconds after that, the plane struck the hillside wing-first, shattering so completely that at least two of the passengers were found on the shoulder of the highway, well away from the main wreckage, still strapped in their seats, according to some witnesses.
Carmody said she had no knowledge that the plane had missed its first pass at the runway, although other sources provided that account.
Avjet Corporation of Burbank, which managed and operated the 20-year-old jet, said it was equipped with a ground-proximity warning system, unlike some private aircraft. Captain Bob Frisbie had logged more than 10,000 flight hours and First Officer Peter Kowalczyk had accrued more than 5,500 hours, the company said. Each man was certified on all Gulfstream models, Carmody said.
It was unclear whether wing ice may have been a factor in the crash.
Frisbie was an old hand at flying into Aspen-Pitkin County Airport — his last trip was only a few weeks ago — but the plane was attempting an instrument landing at a field where surrounding mountains, gusty winds and high altitude can make any approach harrowing.
"The instrument approach into Aspen probably is the most challenging ... in the United States," said Barry Schiff, a private aviation consultant and former commercial pilot. Because the airport is so closely rimmed with mountains, it is necessary to drop sharply in altitude and make a 360-degree turn to properly align with the runway, he said.
"It is very easy to lose sight of the airport and get disoriented," said Bob Dolan, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based businessman and private pilot who has flown into Aspen about 30 times.
NTSB investigators have recovered the plane's cockpit voice recorder. The tape, to be analyzed on Monday in Washington, should enable officials to hear all of the crew's final conversations and radio communications, in addition to engine sounds just before the crash.
However, the jet was not equipped with a flight data recorder, a device required on some — but not all — corporate and private aircraft to monitor altitude, airspeed, heading and other flight variables, the NTSB said.