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Aviation tragedies conceal safer-than-normal Alaska flying season

Colleen Mondor
Kodiak plane crash, March 15, 2010.
Alaska State Troopers
Elim plane crash, June 11, 2009.
Alaska State Troopers
Ketchikan plane crash, July 23, 2010.
Alaska State Troopers
McGrath plane crash, August 14, 2010.
Alaska State Troopers
Seal river plane crash, August 16, 2011.
Alaska State Troopers
Aniak plane crash, November 2011.
Alaska State Troopers
Petersburg plane crash, June 4, 2013.
Alaska State Troopers
Float Plane Crash, 2007.
Alaska State Troopers
A Cessna 150L crashed on takeoff from Merrill Field, killing two people. August 24, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Cantwell plane crash, June 28, 2013.
Alaska State Troopers
NTSB team at the Rediske Air crash site in Soldotna, Alaska.
NTSB
Ketchikan airplane crash, July 24, 2007.
Alaska State Troopers
The wreckage of a Cessna that crashed on Puntilla Lake during the Iron Dog. Pilot Rob Stone and passenger Jason Wichman were airlifted from the site to a hospital in Anchorage. Feb 17, 2013
Courtesy Steve Perrin
Wasilla floatplane crash, July 14, 2009.
Alaska State Troopers
This Beechcraft King Air crashed en route to Atqasuk.
NTSB photo
Airplane crash in Bethel.
Alaska State Troopers
The accident site near Aleknagik, Alaska that took the lives of 5 of the 9 persons aboard, including former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens.
National Transportation Safety Board photo
Ketchikan plane crash, August 2007.
Alaska State Troopers
Quinhagak plane crash, June 6, 2008.
Alaska State Troopers
Kodiak airplane crash, January 5, 2008.
Alaska State Troopers
Hageland Aviation plane crash near Nome, February 19, 2009.
Alaska State Troopers
Alphabet Hill plane crash, September 12, 2010.
Alaska State Troopers
Era helicopter crash, April 15, 2008.
Alaska State Troopers

A rash of deadly aviation accidents -- four in less than two weeks -- has left six people dead and many Alaskans reeling in grief. And so it's gone for six months: in March, as the world watched mushers push into the frozen wilderness along the Iditarod Trail, a mother and daughter flying in to volunteer at a checkpoint were killed, along with the family friend (a neighbor) who was piloting them through Rainy Pass. Just days later two pilots were killed when their plane went down outside Dillingham. As the peak season of summer tourism arrived in Southcentral Alaska, a well-known pilot was killed, along with two families from the East Coast, before their plane could depart Soldotna's municipal airport. That accident, killing nine including Rediske Air owner Walter Rediske, was the deadliest in recent memory and yet in its wake the accidents have continued unabated: Merrill Field, Sutton, Tatina and now an Anchorage pilot, out hunting near Glenallen brings the death toll this year to 28

With so much loss, it's difficult to put the accidents in perspective and analyze Alaska's aviation safety record. And yet, a closer look at 2013 flying statistics reveals a bit of good news amid all the harsh headlines.

This year has been safer for Alaskan pilots than many years past, according to an analysis of National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident data dating back to 2003*. The simple fact: there have actually been fewer aircraft accidents this year, than in those previous.

Here is the breakdown by year:

Year Accidents (Total) Fatal Accidents (Total)
2013 61 10
2012 83 6
2011 77 8
2010 66 11
2009 76 3
2008 79 8
2007 74 7
2006 79 8
2005 102 6
2004 72 10

In 2003, there were 87 accidents recorded by the NTSB; 10 of them were fatality accidents. A fatality accident classification by the NTSB means that at least one person died in the accident; however, multiple deaths occuring in the same crash -- Soldotna, for example -- doesn't influence the NTSB methodology used to count accidents and measure safety.

With only a few weeks left in the busiest aviation season -- weeks when aviation deaths may crest 30 for the year as Alaskans head out for the fall hunting season -- 2013 is, nonetheless, looking as though it could be one of the safest in some time for Alaska aviators.

How's that so, with so much death?

In terms of accidents causing fatalities, the 10 deadly crashes in 2013 represent an increase in fatal accidents over the last decade's average of 7.9 fatal accidents, annually.

And it is entirely possible that more than 30 deadly plane crashes will occur before the end of the year. The last time Alaska had such a high aviation death toll was 2007, according to the NTSB. And you'd have to look back 16 years for a deadlier year: in 1997, there were 51 aviation related deaths in Alaska.

However, fatalities are not the only measure of aviation safety. The number of accidents is very significant.

With only 61 total accidents this year, 2013 is well below the average of 79 by early September. Simply put, thus far there have been fewer aircraft accidents in 2013 then in many many years and a marked improvement over 2011 and 2012.

All of these numbers do little to explain why 2013 has been so devastating, despite the relatively safe accident record. 

Pilot experience has varied widely as well as the flight circumstances. From the scheduled operation of ACE Air Cargo to the Pacific Wings and Rediske Air charters and the follow-the-leader general aviation crash in Windy Pass, all the operators and pilots this year have been unique. They were on the job, on a rescue or out pursuing their passion. The equipment they operated, ranging from a Beech 1900 to Cessna 150 and the terrain they covered, from mountain to tundra to airfield, were all very different. There is, in essence, no single commonality to pin on these accidents. The temptation then is to assert simply that flying in Alaska is inherently dangerous and thus that must be the reason for the accidents but as NTSB investigations have made clear in the past, this is rarely the case and it should not be considered now.

As they have always done, the NTSB will thoroughly access the aircraft wreckage to determine what, if any, mechanical anomalies may have existed. Engines will be bench-tested, fuel drained and tested, instruments scrutinized, the condition of the propeller assessed. All of this will provide valuable clues to accident cause. They will also study the weight and balance of each aircraft and try to understand not only if the aircraft were overweight but even more importantly, if the weight was unevenly distributed causing an aft-center-of-gravity situation which could precipitate an aircraft stall. The nose attitude and how the aircraft impacted will answer questions about power and lift which can reveal if the aircraft stalled due to other reasons (tight turns at slow speed for example). This focus on aircraft condition and load is critical to understanding if a stall occurred. (To be clear, aircraft stalls and engine failures are two different things.)

Communications with other aircraft or air traffic control (as in the Merrill Field and Dillingham accidents) will be reviewed. Finally, investigators will determine if the aircraft impacted the terrain under power.

Pilot error versus mechanical malfunction

After they have the best possible understanding of an aircraft’s condition prior to crash, the investigators will turn to the pilot's actions. This is when pilot error, if any, will be determined. In cases of load distribution, it is the pilot’s responsibility to conduct proper weight and balance. If adverse weather conditions or icing are a factor then the pilot’s knowledge of that weather and any failure to take an alternate route to avoid it will be considered. Aircraft stalls caused by low power or attitude will rest with the responsibility of the hands on the controls.

The pilot-in-command is just that, the ultimate arbiter of decision-making for the aircraft. What the pilots did in each of these accidents right up to the final moments will be carefully studied and then, and only then, will the NTSB make their determination.

All of this takes time and because of that, most Factual Narratives and Probable Cause assessments involving fatalities typically take a year or more to be released. In the meantime, Alaskan pilots should do their best to learn from the accidents thus far this year and proceed with care and caution as they take to the skies.

Air regulations

The Federal Aviation Regulations aren't written haphazardly or casually, especially those concerning weight limits and weather. All too often these rules and regulations are written in blood. Countless pilots and fatality accidents happen -- and the statistics pile up -- before the federal bureaucracy will implement regulations for the nation's air traffic and airports.

So many accidents, so many deaths, and oftentimes, all happening in the same way.

It's important to note that the final reports have not yet been released in any of the above-mentioned accidents. The NTSB offers a preliminary report for each accident within 30 days, typically, and the statistics here are compiled from those reports and others. 

By the numbers: 2013 aviation safety/accident statistics through Sept. 6

  • There were 9 fixed-wing fatality accidents this year and one involving a helicopter, operated by the Alaska State Troopers.
  • Three involved commercial air carriers
  • Six involved general aviation, private airplanes.

Of those crashes:

  • Five occurred in situations where weather conditions appear to be less than optimal (accidents in Rainy Pass, Petersburg, Windy Pass, Sutton and on Thursday, in Eureka);
  • Whereas others, such as Soldotna, Merrill Field's tragedy last month and Tatina, on Sept. 1, took place in good flying conditions. 

Additionally:

  • 1 accident involved a scheduled air carrier
  • 2 accidents involved charter operations
  • 6 accidents involved general aviation and privately owned aircraft
  • 1 accident involved a public use operation (Alaska State Troopers)
  • 2 aircraft were twin-engine, seven were single-engine; the helicopter was single-engine
  • 3 accidents occurred on or very close to airport property
  • 3 accidents occurred in mountainous terrain
  • 3 accidents were associated with hunting parties
  • 1 aircraft was operating under an instrument flight plan

Instrument meteorological conditions prevailed in 3 accident sites; in 2 others conditions appear marginal at best.

Colleen Mondor, a former Fairbanks-area air taxi dispatcher, is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska.” She holds degrees in aviation and northern studies; her graduate work on pilot error accidents in Alaska is cited in NTSB reports and studies.

* NTSB accident records extend online back to 1962. However, technology and its impact on the Alaskan aviation environment have changed dramatically in the ensuing decades, thus for the purposes of this article, I selected to analyze data primarily through the past decade.