Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Rocky Mountain High

Look closely at this picture. Do you see, right down there, an airport? You can pick out the runway if you look...

The name of the airport is Telluride Regional Airport, and it is well known to pilots who fly business jets (which people also fly, obviously, for pleasure). At an elevation of 9,078 feet (2767 m) above sea level, it is the highest commercial airport in North America. We go into a lot of airports near ski resorts; Aspen, Vail, Tahoe, etc.

These mountainous airports can be quite tricky. Some employers make their pilots go through special training to be "checked out" for mountainous operations. Jeppessen, the makers of the airport charts and diagrams, have special full color pages dedicated to operating in and around these airports. Why? Well, first of all, the higher altitude makes takeoff and landing operations different that what we're used to closer to field elevation. The airplane, for example, takes longer to slow down. So any extra speed being carried on final may not be removable on landing, carrying the airplane farther down the runway, toward/past (!) the departure end...

Telluride Regional Airport has one runway designated 9/27 which measures 6,870 by 100 feet (2,094 by 30 m). Located on a plateau, the airport's single runway literally dips slightly in the center. The runway can be a very challenging approach for pilots, particularly those operating commuter aircraft or business jets. During winter months, approximately 20% of the scheduled commuter airline flights end up having to divert to other nearby airports because of abruptly adverse landing conditions. Pilots must contend with high terrain exceeding 14,000 feet at all quadrants, as well as the airport's location on a plateau where 3 sides (including both ends of the runway) plunge about 1,000 ft to the San Miguel River below.

Pilots must exercise great caution whenever southerly winds exceed 15 knots (some say as little as 8 knots), and be aware of rotors, strong turbulence and down-drafts associated with the plateau cliffs during the approach. Most approaches into Telluride come from the west onto Runway 9, from the direction of Placerville and Sawpit. Pilots must stay on the right side of the valley on approach, to avoid potential traffic conflicts. In addition to all this, touch and go landings are prohibited at TEX, and the minimum traffic pattern altitude for the Telluride area is 10,500 ft MSL (1,500 ft AGL). Residential areas located to the east of the airport are generally avoided by arriving and departing aircraft, for both safety and noise abatement purposes.

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