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.