Guest Editor Dave Nichols
A Day With Aspen Airways
By Dave Nichols
The Convair 580 lurched to the left followed by the nose bobbing up and down, then a quick unexpected jab to the right. How much abuse could this airliner take? And we were just taxiing… Seriously, though, Aspen Airways Convair-Liners took a daily pounding over the Rocky Mountains and came back for more, year after year.
Being intrigued by Aspen’s (AP) operation, I put in for jumpseat authority in September 1977. Linking up with the flight crew at the Aspen hangar in Denver, I met captain Bill Rosquist. An immediately likeable person, Bill was in his mid-30s, slim with sandy hair. He introduced me to the 580 Convair that would be assigned the Denver (DEN)-Aspen (ASE) round trips for most of the day: N73133.
Copyright Photo: DDM Photos – Dave Nichols Collection. Convair 580 N73133 (msn 70) rests between flights at Los Angeles. The airliner at this time wears the 1972 two-tone blue scheme. It would later wear United Express colors.
Since it’s “all about the airplanes”, Bill told me the history of this airliner. Manufacturers Serial Number 70, N73133 had been originally purchased and operated by United Airlines in 1953. One of the last Convair 340s flying with UA, Tex Johnston Inc. purchased the airplane in 1968. That company modified it to a 580 but it was a bare-bones conversion with no flight director, updated avionics nor updated panel. N73133 then went through two owners and some desert storage when liberated by Aspen in 1975. The aircraft had always kept its original N number. This Convair-Liner was kind of an orphan with AP. Not equipped like the other 580s in the fleet – purchased from Allegheny and Frontier – N73133 was used almost exclusively on the DEN-ASE run. Today, the airplane was still in the older color scheme of white fuselage with orange cheatline, the last to be repainted. The other nine 580s were resplendent in the super sharp aspen tree leaf design.
The summer and fall are quieter months for Aspen Airways. The airline was adept at wet or dry leasing their excess capacity to other carriers during the slack months. Aspen was also dabbling in scheduled Lake Tahoe and Yellowstone National Park flights from California locations. Two other 580s were rotated into Denver-Aspen service this month and they were at the ready in Denver: N5814, an ex-Allegheny machine and N73126, a former Frontier aircraft.
I would experience three DEN-ASE round-trips today with captain Bill and N73133. I started at 9:00a.m. and would finish at 2:30 p.m. The 110-mile flight took 40 minutes and was flown directly over the mountains; such was the climb performance of the marvelous 580. The turnaround time in Aspen was 25 minutes and at Denver-Stapleton a quick 15. The captain, first officer, flight attendant and I taxied the 50-seater from the hangar to the terminal to start the day’s operation. During my initial cockpit scan I could easily see the economy of this particular aircraft’s conversion. The flight deck layout and goodies did not even compare to the Allegheny 580s I was familiar with. Boarding was quick and basic through a lower level non-jet bridge concourse. Eleven people joined us and we briskly taxied to the active runway. Flaps set at 15-degrees. A reduced power take-off was made. Yes, reduced power, just like the big-boy jets.
During the initial climb, Bill explained that the airplane would need only six minutes to be high enough to clear the mountain peaks which run north and south on the west side of Denver. The east side of town is flat prairie. The skies were completely clear and cobalt blue – it was a great day for flying over the Continental Divide.
One never tires of watching and feeling the Convair 580 perform. It’s like a sled dog musher behind 12 well-trained and fed Alaskan Huskies. When you holler “lets go” the experience is always enriching. Our 580 was climbing at 2500 feet per minute showing 185 knots indicated airspeed. It was purring. As soon as the Convair left 14,000 feet, we were vectored westbound to intercept the airway. Once level at 20,000 feet, our indicated airspeed ticked up to 240 knots yielding a true airspeed of 290 knots. The airspeed indicator needle was in the yellow arc.
Carrying on a conversation in the 580 is doable; it’s not as loud as the 440. Bill reminded me that the airframe of a 580 is pretty much original Convair 340/440. Our speed was much faster than originally performed in the recip version but the design was able to withstand it. Even in the mid-70s, Convair 580s had ten years of exposure on them. There was an Achilles Heel: turbulence. If mountain waved induced turbulence was encountered at an intensity of “severe”, he would have to throttle back to 170 knots. Bill added: “We Always get knocked around on this route but I can maintain 240 knots until it gets nasty.”
At 40-miles west of Denver it started. Even though the skies were incredibly clear, the turbulence was ever present. I could see the great Continental Divide ahead through the windshield; a devil’s backbone of north-south mountains clustered tightly together, all peaking around 14,200 feet. We had been flying over mountains already but the great divide is the mother lode. Even though we were 5,000 feet above the peaks, there was no immunity. The area was sprinkled with the carcasses of unfortunate airplanes that did not make it over the ridge or through a few mountain passes. I also knew that directly off the right wing, near Loveland Pass, was the final resting place of a chartered Martin 404 that ended most of the lives of the Wichita State University (Kansas) football team a few years earlier.
The bumps were mostly hard and jolting. Deep potholes in the airway pummeled us at irregular intervals. Clouds would actually have helped the crew know more about the location and severity of the turbulence. Rocky mountain-based pilots know how to read clouds. Occasionally we experienced that thermal drop where the bottom falls out and everything goes zero-G for several seconds. The flight attendant said that’s when some white knuckle passengers start upchucking. Can you imagine what the Frontier F/As went through with a whole propeller fleet crisscrossing the Rockies?
North of Aspen, captain Bill banked the Convair to the left and set up for the visual approach to runway 15. We would have a 40-degree crosswind at 11 knots. Bill turned his head and with a quick grin said: “No one enjoys flying into Aspen-Pitkin but it’s not terrifying. You can see how close the mountain bluffs are to the airport.” The first officer pointed to two locations of former wrecks. The shards of aluminum and Plexiglas were frequently visible, winking from ledges. Aspen Airways crunched-in their first Convair 240 (N270L msn157) when the gear collapsed on this airport in 1970. Trying to approach and land from the southeast requires a steep descent. It was done more recently with the BAe146 jet but in the 70s it was not the norm. I could see some of the ski runs which are powdery white and contoured in winter but now were rocky and brown. Captain Rosquist made a top notch landing using 28-degree flaps. The 580 does best touching down with only a slight nose-up flare. Reverse pitch is so productive it’s like throwing out an anchor. We deplaned and walked around the ramp.
The turnaround provided Bill a chance to give me a condensed history of Aspen Airways. Founded in 1968 with a base in Denver and a sole route of DEN-ASE. The first aircraft was the ill-fated CV240 purchased from Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. A replacement 240 – N91237 (msn 140) – was hastily purchased in 1970. The model 240 was barely suitable for the mountainous routes and loads, so CV340/440s were added from 1970-72. All were ex-Delta. The recip fleet totaled four and they gave solid service up to 1978. At the time of this story, AP was using the piston Convairs on charter work away from Colorado.
Copyright Photo: Bruce Drum. Formerly operated by Delta Air Lines in the Deep South, Convair 440-38 N4816C (msn 118) (converted from a 340-38) moved west to serve with Aspen Airways. N4816C is parked at Aspen, Colorado in the summer of 1973.
Needless to say, the 580 Convair was the machine they had been praying for. CV580s were purchased in 1973 and would eventually number 13, with aircraft being bought and sold as needed. Aspen experimented in scheduled routes to various Colorado seasonal ski areas. Charters were quite successful. By 1977, the fleet was at eight airplanes, with four coming from Allegheny and three from Frontier at more than a million bucks apiece.
Time to press on, we enplaned 15 pax and rocketed out of ASE. Taking the safe way, we retraced our inbound track starting with a take-off on runway 33. Flight 418 would have a snack service and on afternoon runs the airplane offered wine and cheese to the folks in the back; very popular and unexpected from a small airline.
Aspen Airways, at the time, was truly the air bridge to the City of Aspen. A long and twisting mountain car drive was reduced to a scant 40 minutes on board AP. In 1977, the walk-up fare was $32 one-way. Blocks of tickets were available to locals for a nice discount. Being a fan of old timetables, I noticed that AP only raised fares an average of 4% a year.
1980 Route Map: Aspen Airways expanded outside of its traditional Denver-Aspen Colorado route west to California with its growing Convair 580 fleet in 1979. Due to Deregulation, Air California, PSA and United Airlines abandoned a lot of local routes, especially to Lake Tahoe. Burbank became the short-lived hub of the West Coast operations.
The well muscled 580 is a kerosene binge drinker, even by 1977 standards. Three hundred gallons an hour goes into the burners at 20,000-foot cruise. At low altitudes, the beast swigs 420 gallons every 60 minutes. This is about double the avgas a CV440 goes through. The piston sister has a max gross weight of 49,700 pounds. The 580 tops out at 53,200 pounds. Wide-open throttle garners 2500 horsepower for the 440 and a whopping 3750 for the beefy 580. The 440 cruises around 190 knots indicated, with the 580 blowing by at a cool 250. Is it worth the much higher purchase price and fuel costs? In the 60s and 70s, the answer was a resounding “yes”. By 1985, it was “no”, even for many of the freight dogs.
The return flight to Denver placed us going in the same direction as the flow of air. Once near the Continental Divide I could feel the airplane surfing the invisible waves. After a while, you could sense climbing over a swell, riding the crest and then rushing down the forward face: “hanging ten” on a 51,000 pound piece of aluminum. This was all cool and such but occasionally the Convair would sink into a trough between two large waves – hello breakfast. From the cockpit, I could easily hear the passengers groan under the force of negative Gs.
As an epilogue, Aspen Airways became a United Express affiliate in 1986, still operating those incredible 580s. N73133 was donated to a museum in Alaska in 1986 but was later freshened up and put back in service with Kelowna Flightcraft in Canada as a freighter during 1992. Conversion to fire fighting air tanker took place around 2000 where it was flown by Conair as C-FKFM. Air Wisconsin purchased Aspen Airways in 1991 and quickly disposed of the Convair-Liners, bringing in their BAe 146s. The other former Aspen 580s found work right away: nine of the thirteen were still active around the world up to 2003.
Copyright Photo: Jacques Guillem Collection. BAE 146-100 N462AP (msn E1017) is seen in action at the Denver base. The jetliner is painted in the orange version of the 1971 livery.
Many flying people will remember Aspen Airways fondly and perhaps a little scarily. I’ll bet you have an Aspen Airways story, too. The giant rolling river of air moving eastward over the Rocky Mountains is still there, every minute of every day, waiting to challenge whatever flying machine wishes to traverse.
Write Dave Nichols at firstname.lastname@example.org
Read Dave previous articles:
Nostalgic Tickets: CLICK HERE
Spring Break with Lake Central: CLICK HERE
What Allegheny Meant To Me: CLICK HERE
A Day with Southern Airways: CLICK HERE
Mohawk’s Incredible Weekends Unlimited: CLICK HERE
1985 Route Map: In 1984 the company entered into a market agreement with United Airlines and began to add more feeder routes from and to the Denver hub, abandoning the West Coast operation. On September 1, 1986 Aspen Airways became a full United Express carrier and therefore abandoned its unique and colorful liveries for the traditional United brand.
Guest Editor Dave Nichols
Prop It Up
“What Allegheny Meant To Me”
By Dave Nichols.
The tower controller transmitted to the departing Convair 440 a mile off the end of the runway: “Allegheny 704, your right engine exhaust is much blacker than your left engine.” A static-filled simple answer followed in a gravelly voice: “OK, we’ll watch it.” The sound quality seemed like a transmission from the moon. And off they went to complete the two stops remaining to La Guardia. This was Allegheny Airlines to me.
Copyright Photo: Christian Volpati. This rare photo of short-lived Martin 202 N172A displays the original 1953 colors (click photo for additional details).
A well-worn and dimpled Martin 202 taxied in briskly with ice clinging to the radome, nose wheel strut bobbing up and down from the uneven ramp asphalt. At the instant of propeller shutdown, a small swarm of Allegheny ground staff would buzz around the airplane. Avgas pumping, bags trundling down the conveyor belt followed immediately by suitcases and mail going into the fuselage and belly bins. Deplaning passengers stepped quickly down the tail cone airstairs. Enplaning people would already be on the tarmac, protecting faces from the sharp wind of winter. The Martin’s big R2800 engines gave off steam into the frigid air. Light snowflakes swirled down from a leaden sky. The engine nacelles were covered in soot. Oil seeped from four places. Half a decal was loose and flapped in the wind. From the fence I could see the captain replacing approach plates and tidying up his half of the cockpit. The captain’s side window opened for a few seconds as two ounces of cold stale coffee dribbled to the ground. Several relaxed sentences passed between captain and co-pilot while, below, the lead ramp agent held up two fingers and made a twirling motion with his hand. This NASCAR-style pit stop of nine minutes was over. It was time to go, again, in a scene that would be played out eight times that day for the two pilots. A foot of flame belched from the exhaust outlet followed by a loud bark as the engine was awakened from its brief nap. When the airliner roared down the runway, its two, large, red rotating beacons mounted on top and below the fuselage gave eeriness to the sight. The Martinliner left the ground crisply and quickly returned to the gray overcast from whence it came. For a few seconds you could see just the two counter-rotating red beacons showing through the dense cloud cover, then just the bellowing of two radial engines at full throttle. This was Allegheny to me.
I was 12 years old and so hooked on the local service airlines. Just witnessing all that made the hairs on my body stand up as if electrified. The grittiness, the against- all-odds determination of the employees coupled with the pockmarked, greasy, wild old airliners were all too surreal for me. Through bad weather, weary airframes, out of date systems and troubling engines, Allegheny made it work. This was normal! They continued to grow.
I can still remember so much of commercial aviation during my youth. I always looked up when any airliner would fly over – always. I got yelled at by my Little League baseball coach for looking up at a Mohawk Convair 240, at the same time a fly ball was heading my way. I missed the catch and was forced to join the spares on the bench. He yelled to the whole team: “Now Nichols can watch all the friggin’ airplanes he wants!”
I also have a passion for Lake Central Airlines and Central Airlines. Allegheny, however, was my first flight and evolved into my hometown’s most dominant airline. My boyhood is permeated with scenes of Allegheny airplanes and its people.
I met Allegheny shortly after they started flying into my city of Erie, Pennsylvania in 1953. I was in the second grade. American Airlines first served ERI in 1938 with one lone DC-2 round-trip from Newark multi-stopping across central New York State, a virtual flag stop at Erie and on to Cleveland. Remember Ernest K. Gann writing that Erie was so boring they seldom looked out the side windows? Erie has this incredible natural peninsula and large harbor – how could that be boring? Anyway, AA got bored with Erie and received permission to drop it in 1953. AL was standing in line to replace them. ERI got 3 total round-trips in return: two Newark-Cleveland with five stops and one Atlantic City-Cleveland with six stops. Capital was the mainline carrier in ERI with service to their hub at Pittsburgh. (When Capital failed in 1961, Allegheny moved rapidly to fill the vacuum at PIT –- “and now you know the rest of the story”). By 1956, AL sported eight round-trips thru ERI, allowing Erieites same plane service to six Pennsylvania cities along with terminuses at Detroit, Cleveland, Washington D.C., Newark and Atlantic City.
Allegheny was the carrier always supplying more flights to more cities, even though Mohawk commenced Erie service in 1956 and Lake Central followed in 1957. Erie was the third largest city in PA at the time but all it offered as an airline terminal was a one-room wooden building. Can you picture a trunk line and three local service carriers all operating in that wooden building? Capital pulled out of ERI in late 1960, just before they ceased business altogether and were acquired by United. Lake Central was awarded the desirable ERI-PIT run. Allegheny management was livid but they got it back in 1968 with the acquisition of Lake Central.
Copyright Photo: Jacques Guillem Collection. Douglas C-47A-DL (DC-3) N151A makes a quick stop at Cleveland (CLE) (click on the photo for additional details).
My first flight on any airplane was ERI-CLE in an Allegheny DC-3. The morning westbound run to CLE in the summer of 1955 found an incredibly excited boy of nine flying unaccompanied to visit a cousin. What a bonus for me to have relatives in Cleveland. I worked on my parents for months to let me fly. “Hey mom and dad, you won’t have to drive the 100 miles to take me and pick me up.” The one-way fare was $7.05. At 10:39 a.m., AL 701 gurgled up to the white wooden building. The green and white DC-3, one of 14, had departed EWR at 7:50 a.m. and flown westward to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, then Bradford and Jamestown before landing at Erie. The airplane was plush to me, with thick upholstery, soft seats, curtains in the windows and carpet on the floor. All this fabric made the sounds softer and muted. About 10 people got on; I sat in the last row on the left side. There was a steward on board who offered us individually wrapped Chiclets gum on a silver tray. Now, this 45 minutes of incredible experience was to be mine. I had been at the Erie airport many times with my grandmother Carrie to pick up or drop off my grandfather Carle, who flew Capital weekly. My turn had come; this DC-3 had arrived here for me. The flight was wonderful, sightseeing perfect as we flew parallel to the Lake Erie shoreline and I got to see my first big airport operation at Cleveland.
December 1, 1955 Allegheny Timetable (courtesy of Airlinetimetables.com) showing flight 701 (third column) (click on the timetable to expand the size):
1955 Allegheny Route Map (courtesy of Airlinetimetables.com):
I loved the Allegheny DC-3s, flying in them perhaps a dozen times. I do not remember any mechanical breakdowns. The weather along Lake Erie is up and down on a continual basis. Despite the building cumulus or solid stratus down to minimums, I felt as safe as can be in those DC-3s.
Copyright Photo: Christian Volpati Collection. Martin 202 N93205 is painted in the second “powder blue” 1960 livery which also introduced the “speed wedge” tail logo.
Then one day in 1959, I readied for yet another flight to CLE. (I hounded my parents a lot). Pressing my forehead to the fence at the old terminal, what should roll up but a Martin 202. It was huge, covered in streaked dirty oil and was mean looking. I had seen some Martins in the air on Allegheny’s Detroit route but the DC-3s had exclusively been used on the CLE runs – until now. My stomach sank and my bowels rumbled. I was afraid of this beast. A friend had barfed on a 202 from Harrisburg to Washington so I equated the Martin with easy to get sick on. However, boarding through the tail on the ventral stairs was cool. Holy cow, a really pretty stewardess; not just any stewardess but a genuine French stewardess! She was dressed in a modern uniform with the cutest beret. Claudette — yes, I have always remembered her name — was part of an exchange program between Allegheny and a French airline. I believe there were a dozen women who participated. Hey, if she was brave enough to fly on a 202, I could do it, too. The interior was striking and Allegheny is to be praised: powder blue headliner and side panels, with seat fabrics and curtains in a cream, tan and light blue weave. The airline found a way to tastefully dress up a ten year old heavily used airplane.
The Martinliner sat high off the ground, was noisy, great for short field take-offs and noticeably faster than the DC-3. Alternate runway 2-20 at ERI was only 3500 feet and occasionally the 202s would use it if the wind was up and the temperature down. Being unpressurized, the 202 was limited to a ceiling of 8,000 feet MSL, maximum. By 1961, no Allegheny DC-3s graced the tarmac at ERI or posed next to the new concrete and brick terminal. For three more years all AL flights through my home were 202s. I flew on the “Martin Executives” throughout high school and part of college. After all the years, when I think of Allegheny, the image of a battle-worn Martin pops into my head. I was always half excited and half fearful every time I climbed aboard. It was a rush, though. The only other airliner that gave me the same love/scared feeling was the Lockheed 188 Electra.
Copyright Photo: Bruce Drum. Convair 440-97 N8422H prepares for departure from a crowded Philadelphia ramp (click on the photo for additional details).
The summer of 1964 brought Allegheny Convair 440 service to my hometown. Two years later, the first 580 conversion touched down on the 6500-foot runway 6-24. At the same time, July 1966, AL retired its Martin fleet, save for a standby aircraft and two Cargoliners. I flew as a passenger on one of the last Allegheny Martin 202 revenue flights, captained by Bob Fox.
Copyright Photo: Bruce Drum. The Convair 580 upgrade extended the life of the Convair 340/440 fleet.
In 1968, I would be reunited with a former Allegheny Martin, N93209, and be able to fly it. That was a full circle and emotional experience for me. I was handling the controls and switches that hundreds of Allegheny pilots had done before me. The other pilots I worked with couldn’t understand how I felt. After all, it was just a battered, greasy, noisy and mean looking airplane.
Note: Allegheny Airlines became USAir on October 28, 1979 and US Airways on February 27, 1997. Today US Airways, along with US Airways Shuttle and US Airways Express, operates more than 3,200 flights per day and serves more than 200 communities in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Central and South America. The airline employs more than 32,000 aviation professionals worldwide, operates the world’s largest fleet of Airbus aircraft and is a member of the Star Alliance network, which offers its customers more than 20,500 daily flights to 1,293 airports in 190 countries. Together with its US Airways Express partners, the airline serves approximately 80 million passengers each year and operates hubs in Charlotte, N.C., Philadelphia and Phoenix, and a focus city in Washington, D.C. at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
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