Pilots Should Always Be Prepared for Unique Challenges at Wyoming’s Jackson Hole Airport

Feb. 4, 2014

Located in a scenic mountain valley, Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) in western Wyoming is a unique and challenging airport that requires in-bound operators to utilize thorough pre-flight planning, make smart in-flight decisions and pay meticulous attention to procedures on landing.

The only U.S. airport with commercial service that lies entirely within a national park – Grand Teton – and by far the busiest airport in Wyoming (averaging about 75 operations daily, though the number is highly variable by season), Jackson Hole’s abundance of unique features have earned the airport its own FAA safety alert for operators, SAFO 11011, titled “Best Practices and Mitigation Strategies for Special Airports.”

Altitude of 6,451 feet MSL – a higher-density altitude with higher true airspeeds? Check. The towering Teton Range to the west and other mountain peaks in all directions? Check. Three hundred inches of snow per year and frequently slippery surfaces? Check. A single 6,300-foot Runway 1/19 that slopes downhill if landing? Check. Balloon and hang-glider operations in the vicinity? Check. Voluntary noise curfews and noise abatement procedures in effect? Check.

“We’ve got a great airport here, but we encourage incoming flights to do their homework,” said Ray Bishop, Jackson Hole Airport director. Noting that the high-density altitude has “gotten people in trouble,” Bishop recommended that incoming pilots visit the airport’s website – which contains lots of safety and operational information, including photos and videos – and do extensive pre-flight planning before venturing to JAC.

Pre-flight Planning Is Key

Jeff Brown, president of the single FBO, Jackson Hole Aviation, agrees. “This is a challenging environment,” said Brown. “You need a plan, a back-up plan, and another back-up plan.” According to Brown – who has been flying out of Jackson Hole since 1981 and who has owned the FBO since 1983 – “pre-flight planning is the key to the whole thing. You have to be acutely aware of the weather, not just at Jackson, but for the entire area. Where is the weather coming from? Where is my ‘back door’? There’s a lot of holding, a lot of diversions, so you need to have adequate fuel reserves as well.”

Both Bishop and Brown note that any extra speed on final – even a few knots – can use up hundreds of additional feet of runway. As a result, Jackson Hole Airport has the highest runway excursion/overrun rate in the country. “It’s imperative to conduct stabilized approaches on VREF and touchdown within the first third of the runway,” said Brown. “You need to fly the aircraft, not ride in it.”

The FAA’s SAFO even recommends that operators consider special training and qualifications – such as simulator training – for pilots flying into Jackson Hole, and notes that turbojet aircraft in particular “have a limited margin for error when landing at JAC. Be prepared for possible failures, malfunctions and/or surprises.”

Reducing Runway Excursions

In a continuing effort to reduce runway excursions at JAC, Albert Atkins, Ph.D, program manager of the FAA’s Northwest Mountain Region Runway Safety Program, has posted additional safety information on the Jackson Hole Airport website. “Assuming entry into normal ground effect, the pilot should be on the ground by 1,200 to 1,500 feet,” writes Atkins. “Land firm, get the lift off the wings to allow the wheel brakes to take effect as soon as possible.” Atkins recommends a go-around if the aircraft is landing long or airspeed is above normal touchdown speeds.

The good news at JAC is that the airport has received a number of recent upgrades that should increase safety and reduce runway excursions. For example, a runway centerline lighting system (RCLS) was installed in October 2012 to help mitigate the airport’s notorious “black hole effect” on approach at night. The RCLS provides additional visual cues for vertical and lateral positioning, as well as runway distance remaining.

Another significant improvement was the completion in August 2011 of a 950-foot paved safety area, or overrun, at the departure end of Runway 19. Although the paved safety area – stressed to handle even a Boeing 757-200 – may not be used for flight calculations and is for emergency use only, Brown of Jackson Hole Aviation noted that it has been needed on several occasions. An engineered materials arresting system (EMAS) is not in the cards, according to airport manager Bishop, primarily because of the huge amount of snowfall the region receives every winter.

Christy Yaffa, planning and programming manager at WYDOT Aeronautics Division, said that several deicing pads and a glycol recovery system have also been completed near the approach end of Runway 19. Upcoming additional improvements will include a major rehab of the entire apron area. “It’s a very important airport to the state,” said Yaffa, noting that 62 percent of all enplanements in Wyoming are at Jackson Hole. The airport’s lease agreement with the National Park Service has been extended with two 10-year options, which will allow the airport to continue operations through 2053, according to Yaffa.

Other Notable Challenges

As much as many in the aviation community would like to see the actual runway at Jackson Hole extended, the airport’s location within Grand Teton National Park and its jurisdiction under the National Park Service will seemingly preclude that from happening. “The runway will never be lengthened,” said Yaffa of WYDOT. Also unlikely to be increased is the amount of acreage that can be used for airport terminal areas and infrastructure. “We are allowed to have 27 acres, not 28,” said Bishop. “We are essentially land-locked.”

Despite the fact that Jackson Hole Airport contributes $900 million to the regional economy, space constraints will continue to prevent much further development. Bishop indicated that there is really no more room for an additional FBO, and that even some current buildings and hangars may need to be taken down to make way for some new hangars.

For his part, Jeff Brown of Jackson Hole Aviation would like to expand his 18,000 feet of “big” hangar space and have more heated hangars. Currently, about 50 percent of his space is taken up by T-hangars for single-engine aircraft (and there are vacancies) that account for less than 1 percent of his overall business. “This environment is not very conducive to single-engine or piston aircraft,” said Brown. Winter and summer are the busiest months, but Jackson Hole Aviation also services the airlines and has to have a maintenance staff working 10 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year. Interestingly, because of the altitude of JAC, many aircraft do not depart with full tanks, and as a result, “we can’t sell anybody much fuel,” said Brown.

With the town of Jackson 7 miles to the south of the airport, and the majestic national park to the west and north, noise abatement is also a key concern at JAC. A voluntary curfew – with excellent compliance – is in place from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. for takeoffs, and from 11:30 p.m. until 6 a.m. for landings. Enforcement is accomplished via stiff “after hours handling fees” and other disciplinary action. The airport is off-limits to Stage 2 aircraft, and all operators are expected to follow both inbound and outbound procedures for noise mitigation purposes – weather permitting.

“Jackson is a great place to live and a world-class destination,” concluded Brown. “And the airport is a great mountain airport.” Pilots who take the time to learn and prepare for this unique airport’s challenges will keep their passengers both safe and happy.