Plane crashes all too common in Alaska, where air travel is vital mode of transportation

By Rachel Doro, AP
Thursday, August 12, 2010

Plane crashes all too common tragedy in Alaska

JUNEAU, Alaska — Anyone who has ever stepped foot on an airplane in Alaska is keenly aware of the dangers that lurk in every mountain pass and cloud on the horizon.

Ted Stevens was so mindful of the risks that he once called plane crashes an occupational hazard for politicians in Alaska, and he spoke from experience. He survived a plane crash in 1978 that killed his wife.

The crash that killed Stevens and four others on a salmon fishing trip this week has served as another tragic reminder about just how dangerous flying is in Alaska. Government statistics show that the plane crash rate in Alaska is more than twice the national average.

More than 80 percent of Alaska’s communities, including the state capital of Juneau, are not connected to highways or road systems, making travel by air or water an essential. The state says Alaska has roughly one registered pilot for every 58 residents.

For many residents, flying to larger cities for shopping or other errands is as familiar as taxis and buses might be to urban dwellers. Commuter planes regularly hopscotch from village to village dropping off and picking up passengers in a state that is more than double the size of Texas.

The frequency of air travel exposes residents to all sorts of deadly risks. The terrain is extremely rugged and mountainous, and the weather is wildly unpredictable.

A clear flight can quickly turn into a nightmare of clouds, rain and wind as pilots navigate tricky mountain passes and fly over glaciers and winding rivers — terrain that covers much of Alaska.

Bush pilots have to be adept at landing on water, snow and patches of tundra. They typically fly by using visuals not instruments, relying on sled dog trails, a river, mountain or a familiar tree to keep them on track.

Making matters more challenging is the fact that the state has relatively few weather stations that can provide crucial information about conditions in the air.

“Alaska’s very challenging to fly in,” said Valerie Jokela, a dog musher from Anchorage who flew for years and now also works with the Federal Aviation Administration. “There are mostly mountain ranges that generate their own weather, and mountain passes, and glaciers — and glaciers make their own weather, too.”

Laura Washington lives in the Inupiat Eskimo village of Buckland, 40 miles from the Arctic Circle. There are no roads leading to the community of 425 people.

Several times a year, Washington visits Anchorage more than 500 miles to the southeast for shopping, major medical appointments or to watch sporting events. But first, she has to catch a small plane north to the hub town of Kotzebue. From there, she catches a larger plane to Alaska’s largest city.

During the winters, people use snowmobiles for some travel, but the need for planes never goes away. They’re the most reliable form of transportation, Washington said, “if you want to go outside the village.”

Bush pilots serve as a lifeline for these villages, responding to medical emergencies and other calamities. Their cargo can range from a new generator for a village to a casket on a way to a funeral.

In an unusual twist to this week’s tragedy, Stevens had been a vocal advocate of a federal project to equip airplanes with new technology to provide pilots with better weather information.

The technology, hailed by FAA as “the future of air traffic control,” is called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast. It’s meant to help replace the radar that pilots and controllers now rely on with GPS technology that allows them to see on cockpit displays concise weather information and location of other aircraft in the area.

Plans currently call for all aircraft flying within certain controlled air space to be equipped with the technology by 2020, FAA spokeswoman Tammy Jones said.

Alaska was one of the first test sites for the program. It can cost from $7,600 to $10,900 to equip a general aviation aircraft with the technology, the FAA says.

Jim La Belle, regional director for the National Transportation Safety Board, told The Associated Press that the plane Stevens was on was not outfitted with that technology. It’s still not known if the technology could have prevented the crash as the 1957 float plane slammed into a mountainside Monday afternoon.

Federal statistics show that flying in Alaska is a dangerous endeavor.

Aviation data analyzed by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Air Safety Foundation found a rate of 13.59 accidents per 100,000 flight hours in Alaska between 2004 and 2008. The comparative national rate for general aviation aircraft was 5.85 accidents per 100,000 flight hours.

That means Alaska’s accident rate was more than two times higher than the national average, according to the figures.

Because of the risks, Alaska pilots possess unique skills to navigate the difficult terrain.

“A lot of the stuff is not what you’d find down in the Lower 48,” said John Bouker, the owner of Bristol Bay Air Service who has logged 30,000 hours in his career. “It’s not just a simple matter that you got your license, you went through all the classes. You got to know where you’re going, man.”

“The No. 1 rule is you don’t lose the ground,” he said of flying by visual means only. “And you better know where you’re at or you’re in trouble.”

Associated Press Writer Mark Thiessen contributed to this report from Dillingham, Alaska. D’Oro contributed from Anchorage.

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