Steamboat Springs Area pilots said it is likely nothing more than coincidence that two small planes have crashed in nearly the same remote spot south of Rabbit Ears Pass in the last six months.
Three people died Saturday morning when their single-engine plane crashed south of Walton Peak in the Sarvis Creek Wilderness Area.
The crash site is just 250 feet from the site where another small plane out of the Colorado Springs area went down on Dec. 29. One of the four passengers on board the December flight died.
"I think that's a little on the strange side," said Mountain Flight Service chief pilot Rick Whitmore. "It's darn good aiming."
Whitmore said he has flown over Rabbit Ears Pass many times, and that the area is not necessarily hard to navigate.
"I've done it for years and I don't think it's exceptionally difficult," Whitmore said. "But you can never take the mountains for granted."
Whitmore said he believed the two similar crashes were coincidental, since Steamboat Springs does not have the highest elevation in the state, and pilots successfully navigate over Rabbit Ears quite often.
Whitmore pointed out the planes were flying in different conditions.
The flight in December was traveling through snow, and the plane that crashed Saturday was flying in hot weather.
Various factors could have affected both flights, he said.
"The aircraft could have had mechanical problems of some kind," Whitmore said. "You just don't know."
A mistake eastbound pilots can make when departing from Steamboat Springs Airport is flying due east, airport manager Matt Grow said. The pilots should complete a box, heading north, west and south to gain elevation before turning back to the east and attempting to clear the mountains, he said.
Flying at any high altitude poses some difficulties, Jim "Moose" Barrows said.
Before beginning a flight, a pilot must determine the density altitude, he said. This calculation is the combination of actual altitude and other factors that affect air pressure like heat.
Whitmore said "the density altitude is the altitude a plane thinks it's at." An elevation like Steamboat's, near 6,800 feet, coupled with 90-degree heat could make the density altitude closer to 10,000 feet, he said.
The less dense the air, the harder it is for a plane to take off, and the less functionality a plane has, Barrows said. High elevation and heat both thin the air, he said.
"A lot of airplanes don't perform very well (at high altitude)," Barrows said.
Flying through canyons like the one where the crashes occurred can fool pilots, he said. "The canyon tightens up," Barrows said, "and the airplane won't climb fast enough."
Barrows and Whitmore both said wind can play a major factor in mountain flying. The airflow can help pilots by pushing them to higher elevations, or threaten them by pushing them lower toward terrain.
Pilots should always hug the side of a canyon, allowing enough room to turn around if necessary, Barrows said. A plane should never be navigated straight up a canyon.
"Steamboat's got a nice little valley that's pretty open," Whitmore said. He speculated that this could lead some pilots to underestimate the difficulty of the route.
He said most aircrafts should be able to reach about 10,000 feet to safely clear the terrain over Rabbit Ears Pass after departing from Steamboat Springs Airport, but every plane is different.
"It's a pilot's responsibility to check that," he said.
Pilots should consult their plane's specific performance charts every time they plan a flight, he said.