By David Jack Kenny
In unfamiliar territory, whether it’s just a new airport or an entirely different part of the country, it makes sense to acquire whatever local expertise is available. Most of us look for any chance to talk to based pilots or frequent visitors, and treasure their collective wisdom. That shouldn’t obscure the fact that FAA publications like the airport/facility directory (A/FD) still contain essential details that informal sources might not get quite right.
Just after 8 a.m. on Dec. 8, 2013, the pilot of a commuter flight departing Los Alamos, New Mexico, had a brief radio conversation with the pilot of an Aviat A-1C-200 Husky that was still on the ramp. The Husky pilot wondered how seriously to take the A/FD’s decree that all landings must be made on Runway 27 and all takeoffs on Runway 09, and asked whether that was really mandatory. The commuter pilot replied that he thought his company had obtained approval to take off on Runway 27—with the specific permission of the airport manager, who wasn’t there on Sundays.
Pilots who haven’t done much flying in the mountains should approach Los Alamos with a healthy degree of caution. The airport sits on top of a mesa at an elevation of 7,171 feet msl. There are canyons on three sides, but the one south of the field is in a restricted area that extends almost to the airport fence. The one to the north drops a quick 500 feet, offering aircraft in distress an extra buffer of altitude. The “Airport Info” page on the airport’s website includes a letter from resident flight instructors warning visiting pilots of density altitudes up to 11,000 feet and a high likelihood of strong gusty crosswinds and turbulence close to the runway. It also stresses that all go-arounds should be made to the north to avoid restricted airspace and gain that extra altitude over the canyon.
On the fourth side, directly to the west, the town of Los Alamos lies between the threshold and a ridge steep enough to be mistaken for a cliff by a pilot on final approach. The town is considered a noise-sensitive area. The same warning letter from the resident CFIs includes the admonition, “DO NOT ATTEMPT A TAKEOFF TO THE WEST. The rising terrain combined with wind coming off the mesas and over the mountains has caused several accidents.” The airport’s website reiterates “All landings on Rwy 27 … All departures on Rwy 09 regardless of wind conditions.”
On that particular morning, density altitude was less of a factor—about 300 feet below field elevation thanks to the cold, dry winter air—but the winds were from 270 degrees at 12 knots gusting to 23. It’s easy to understand why the 500-hour private pilot wasn’t comfortable taking off with that much tailwind, but neither was he willing to wait for the wind to diminish or change directions. The commuter pilot heard him announce that he was back-taxiing on Runway 27.
Two witnesses saw the Husky just after takeoff. The first described seeing it emerge from a snow shower and initiate a 180-degree turn. The second reported that at an altitude of about 100 feet it suddenly banked steeply to the left and disappeared from sight. It crashed just south of the runway. The pilot and his passenger, a 150-hour private pilot, were killed by impact forces before fire consumed most of the airplane. The extent of fire damage limited the investigators’ examination of the wreckage, but they found no indication of engine or airframe failure prior to the crash. The probable cause of the accident was “The pilot’s loss of airplane control while maneuvering after takeoff in gusty wind conditions.”
The Husky’s owner was based in Minnesota, his passenger in Iowa. The extent of their mountain-flying experience, if any, hasn’t been reported. Neither is there any record of how deeply he’d researched practices and operations at Los Alamos, to which he’d diverted after his route to the Phoenix area had been blocked by bad weather. His conversation with the outbound pilot makes it clear that he was at least aware of the restrictions on runway direction … but perhaps not of the reasons behind them. With westbound departures not authorized and an eastbound departure unwise, the best course would have been to sit tight a little longer. The CFIs’ warning to pilots also notes that “The weather can change rapidly, so if you don’t like the winds at Los Alamos, wait 15 to 30 minutes to see if they change.” Even a couple of hours’ delay wouldn’t have been catastrophic.