‘Whale’ 737 makes first-ever landing at Aspen’s airport as debate about larger plane continues
ASPEN — The once-unthinkable happened Thursday afternoon in Aspen.
For the first time ever, a Boeing 737 airplane touched down at Aspen’s airport. And while Hunter S. Thompson may have rolled over in his grave, hardly anyone else seems to have noticed.
Those who did see it apparently liked it.
“It was so cool,” Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper said Friday. “It was a great experience to at least see a plane this size come in.”
The privately owned, shorter version of the standard U.S. passenger plane landed Thursday afternoon and easily made it under the airport’s 100,000-pound weight limit, though its wingspan was just three inches under the maximum allowed at the airport, according to airport director John Kinney.
“It kinda looked like a whale,” Kinney said. “In terms of a 737, that is the only one that’s ever landed here. I think everybody was like, ‘Yeah, this is a little unusual.'”
Thursday’s landing is significant because of the upper Roaring Fork Valley’s longtime aversion to large airplanes. The debate has been reignited recently because of plans to expand the airport’s runway and build a much larger terminal.
The 737-500 that landed Thursday is a shorter fuselage version of 80s model 737s, according to airliners.net. It is 101 feet, 9 inches long with a wingspan of 94 feet, 9 inches and an empty weight of 70,510 pounds, according to the site.
The maximum wingspan currently allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration at the Aspen airport is 95 feet. Kinney said the 737 landed at under 90,000 pounds and took off about an hour later at just under 80,000 pounds.
The airplane — owned by a Texas oil company — left Gunnison Regional Airport at 1:13 p.m. and landed in Aspen at 1:41 p.m., according to Flight Aware.com. The plane then took off from Aspen at 2:56 p.m. and flew to Fort Worth, according to the site.
Kinney said the plane was a 1996 model and the pilot told him that only about half a dozen were still flying around the United States. Clapper said it was nicknamed “Lucky Liz” after the matriarch of the family who owns it.
Because it met airport standards, Aspen officials had to allow the landing, Kinney said.
“We’re not allowed to say ‘no’ if they can operate under those restrictions,” he said.
Clapper said she was in the Board of County Commissioners office when a call came in asking if anyone wanted to go see the plane, and she jumped at the chance.
“I wanted to hear it,” she said. “I wanted to smell it.”
When she approached the airport from Owl Creek Road, she said the 737 was obvious. Regional jets operated by the major airlines looked longer, she said, though the 737 was fatter.
Commissioner Greg Poschman said he was on Highway 82 when he saw it.
“I looked over and saw this Moby Dick-looking thing parked at the end of the runway,” he said. “I clearly noticed it and thought, ‘That must be the one.'”
While the plane was fatter with a taller tail than other planes, it was not monstrous, he said.
“It wasn’t shocking,” Poschman said. “It was not staggeringly huge.”
Clapper said she watched from the tarmac near the fixed-base operations building as the 737 taxied to the end of the runway and then sped past her and rose into the air. She said she was able to have a normal conversation with the person next to her as the plane took off.
“You didn’t even have to raise your voice,” she said.
That was in contrast to takeoffs by regional jets she witnessed Thursday when she was forced her to plug her ears and shout at the person next to her, Clapper said.
Kinney said the 737-500 was quieter than not only the regional jets, but also a small corporate jet and a large corporate jet he heard take off Thursday. The 737 had a lower frequency than the other planes, he said.
In addition, Kinney said he went to the Buttermilk parking lot to hear the plane land, which was surprisingly quiet, though he noted that landing is the quietest point of a plane’s flight.
Clapper said that while it was educational to see and hear the plane, she noted that it was not an accurate representation of a normal 737.
“We need to keep in mind this is the baby 737,” she said. “The bigger 737s, which I think are people’s fears, could be a whole ‘nother animal.”
The 737 landing and takeoff generated zero comments or complaints to the airport or the county, Kinney and Clapper said. Airport officials deployed community noise monitors recently, so the data from Thursday will be available to be analyzed, Kinney said.
The airport handled 150 total landings and takeoffs Thursday, Kinney said.
Commissioners and airport officials are at the beginning of a more-than-year-long public outreach process to determine the future of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. Officials have proposed moving the runway 80 feet to the west and widening it from 100 feet to 150 feet, mainly to accommodate anticipated larger wingspans on the next generation of regional jets.
In addition, they have made plans to build a new 60,000- to 80,000-square-foot terminal. Cost estimates are just under $100 million for the runway and between $350 million and $400 million for the terminal, some of which will be covered by the federal government.
The new runway specifications would allow modern, passenger-carrying 737s to land at the airport, Kinney has said.
Clapper, a longtime Aspen resident well-aware of the valley’s aversion of large airplanes, said Friday that nothing about the airport project has yet been decided.
“We have no idea what the newly configured airport will look like and no idea what will or will not be flying out of here,” Clapper said. “We have a long way to go.”
Back in the mid-1990s, airport officials in Aspen sought permission to expand the runway and attract 737s and other larger planes. That campaign was defeated by a group led by author Hunter S. Thompson, who lived for decades in Woody Creek within the airport’s flight path. The motto of Thompson’s vocal effort was “There is Some S— We Won’t Eat.”
The deadline to vote is Monday, May 20.