In response to a Colorado Open Records Act request from Aspen Journalism, the Aspen/Pitkin County airport has released video of the fatal jet crash that occurred on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014.
The video was captured by five different cameras normally used by airport officials to monitor activity on the ramps, or aprons, outside the general aviation and commercial aviation terminals.
Together, the video feeds from the five infrared cameras show the jet’s engines firing just before touching down, as if the pilot was trying to abort the landing at the last second. The plane then bounces hard off the runway, leaps into the air and comes in hard nose-first before bursting into flames. The video also shows a rescue vehicle quickly responding to the crash.
Of the three pilots on board N115WF, one was killed and two were injured. (See the latest update on their condition in the Aspen Daily News.)
On a typical day the feeds from the cameras help airport operators watch for conflicts between aircraft, vehicles and people, especially on the ramp where private planes come in to load and unload passengers.
The cameras send infrared images back to monitors, so heat appears as white light in the video. The video is in grainy black and white and the cameras are not pointed directly at the runway. There is no audio.
In the upper left-hand corner of the video from Camera 1, it appears as if the engines on the Challenger CL-600 jet were revved up just before it was about to touch down.
On the audio recording of the communication between the pilots of N115WF and the airport control tower, a voice can be heard saying as the plane comes in for its final approach, “Go around, go around.”
The jet had a tailwind of at least 19 knots and the tower advised the pilots of gusts of up to 25 knots, according to a preliminary report issued on Jan. 17 by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The video from Camera 2 shows the plane skipping off the runway and arcing into the air with engines flaring.
Then, Camera 3 captures the plane coming down hard onto the runway, bursting into flames and continuing down the runway. Camera 3 also shows, within 45 seconds of the plane crashing, a vehicle moving toward the wreckage from an airport operations center on the right side of the runway.
Kirk Schoenthaler, an airport operations employee who responded to the crash, told The Aspen Times, “I saw a jet that didn’t look right. It was in a nose-high attitude close to the ground, then it went nose-down and quickly dropped towards the runway. As soon as I saw that, I knew I needed to start responding and headed towards my truck. I didn’t wait for anything else.”
Camera 4 shows the plane bursting into flames, people coming out of buildings on the left of the runway, and the wind blowing snow on the side of the runway.
Camera 5 shows the plane coming in, bouncing off the runway, and then coming down hard and bursting into flames.
Officials from the NTSB have the video feeds, according to Jim Elwood, airport director of the Aspen/Pitkin County airport.
“The crew executed a missed approach, and then requested to be vectored for a second attempt,” the NTSB’s preliminary report said. “On the second landing attempt N115WF briefly touched down on the runway, then bounced into the air and descended rapidly impacting with the ground at midfield.”
That description is consistent with what can be seen in the video feeds.
Elwood said he felt it would be valuable for the NTSB investigators to study the video.
“I think it is important in analyzing what happened in the accident,” Elwood said.
And while Elwood confirmed the video “is a matter of record,” he was reluctant to see it made truly public.
“The unfortunate part of this video is that it does recognize a fatality,” Elwood said. “That’s always sad and we need to respect life. Unfortunately, a very sad thing happened at that point in time.”
Elwood said it also may be difficult for people to understand what they are seeing in the video.
“The infrared is not the typical way that people see video and understand it,” he said. “Everything looks very different and it takes a certain amount of visualization of what you are seeing to understand it. But, it is what it is.”
Elwood did not know if the family of the three Mexican pilots aboard the aircraft had seen the video.
“We did place a call to the Mexican Consulate to advise them that we have released it to the media,” Elwood said.
The video’s existence was brought to Elwood’s attention several days after the accident.
“We didn’t know what was on them until someone had a chance to review them,” Elwood said of the cameras and their recording systems.
At a press conference several hours after the crash, the airport’s assistant aviation director, Brian Grefe, was asked, “Do you know if any airport cameras or surveillance cameras actually caught the crash in its entirety?”
“I have not heard,” Grefe responded.
“Do you have cameras that watch that kind of thing?” another reporter asked.
“We have various cameras throughout the airport,” Grefe said. “Specifically, where they were pointed at the time of the incident, I haven’t reviewed yet.”
The video’s existence came to the attention of Aspen Journalism after a senior official with Pitkin County told a citizen they had seen footage from the airport of the crash.
After a formal open records request for the video was made by Aspen Journalism to Elwood, he promptly provided a copy of the video footage and sat down for an hour to discuss it.
The meeting took place several days before the NTSB’s preliminary report was issued on Jan. 17.
After the report came out, Aspen Journalism took the video files to Grassroots TV, where a producer added title cards and put the five video streams into one video, with only minor edits to reduce the time when the plane could not be seen in the feeds provided by the airport.