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Aspen Airport.

The pilot of a small airplane that crashed near Aspen earlier this month appears to have been flying too low for the tall mountains surrounding the resort town when he crashed, killing himself and another man. 

A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board says the Beechcraft Bonanza was flying at an altitude of 11,500 feet on July 3 as it approached a mountain ridgeline with summits over 13,000 feet.  The plane crashed at an elevation of about 11,000 feet less than 20 minutes after it departed from Aspen/Pitkin County Airport.

Ruben Cohen and David Zara, both of whom were from New York, died in the crash near Midway Pass, about 10 miles east of Aspen. Authorities have not said who was flying the plane when it crashed. Both men were pilots, according to a Federal Aviation Administration database.

The preliminary report and flight radar records archived on show that after the plane took off, it circled above Aspen for about 10 minutes, gaining altitude with each passing turn. An air traffic controller at the airport told the pilot that they would let him know when they were high enough to proceed out of the area.

“When passing through 10,100 feet, the pilots informed the tower that they would depart to the east, stating ‘we’re above it,’” the report said.

The plane was headed to Des Moines, Iowa. It departed from Napa County Airport in California earlier in the day.

According to Beechcraft, its Bonanza aircraft can fly at an altitude of up to 18,500 feet and climb at a maximum rate of 1,230 feet per minute. The plane that crashed was manufactured in 2007.

There wasn’t adverse weather in the Aspen area at the time of the crash.

It can take months — if not years — for the NTSB to determine a probable cause of an airplane crash.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....