Fallout from NTSB safety recommendations on Ravn Alaska continues

Colleen Mondor

In the two months since the National Transportation Safety Board issued two safety recommendations (one of them urgent) directed toward the operations of Ravn Alaska, there have been both internal and external inspections of its companies, especially its most troubled carrier, Hageland Aviation. The NTSB issued the recommendations on May 1 in the course of investigating several accidents and an incident involving Ravn Alaska air group members dating back more than two years. These included two recent multiple fatality accidents involving Hageland Aviation, one from November of last year in St. Marys that resulted in the death of the pilot and three passengers, and the second on April 8 of this year that left two pilots dead when their training flight crashed in the Bethel area.

Based on information from FAA databases, of the 2,300 aviation companies operating in the U.S. under Part 135 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, Hageland Aviation rates as the largest scheduled passenger air carrier by fleet size. It has seen rapid growth since it combined resources with Frontier Flying Service in 2008 but even prior to that, both companies began absorbing routes that were abandoned as smaller air carriers operating in rural Alaska went out of business, primarily due to the change in bypass mail rules orchestrated by Sen. Ted Stevens in 2002.

By the time Frontier and Hageland came together, Frontier had already absorbed the route structures that came from its outright purchase of Cape Smythe Airlines in 2005. Later, in 2009, the new Frontier/Hageland entity named HoTH Inc. -- and operating then as Frontier Alaska -- purchased Arctic Circle Air and began covering its routes. This was also the year Era Aviation was purchased by HoTH Inc. and the company name changed again to Era Alaska. Early this year, the three carriers were rebranded jointly as Ravn Alaska, though they continue to hold separate operator certificates. (Era Helicopters has never been affiliated with HoTH Inc. and remains a completely separate company.)

Based on analysis of Ravn's published timetable and Flightaware.com tracking, Hageland alone flies more than 80 weekly scheduled routes to destinations in Alaska as diverse as St. Marys, Savoonga, Galena and Point Hope. Along with its air group partners, Hageland dominates scheduled air service in the state; based on destinations served, the three companies combined are the largest air carrier to ever operate in Alaska.

The Ravn group schedule lists only destinations with improved airstrips and enhanced navigational aids usually including instrument approaches. It is thus problematic to compare the Ravn safety record with those of other companies that operate regularly in and out of unimproved landing areas such as gravel bars, dirt strips, glaciers or lakes where there are often no navigational aids at all. Some flying environments in Alaska present more dangers than others due to their primitive conditions. With the exception of the recent fatality training accident, which occurred 22 miles southeast of Kwethluk while maneuvers were being conducted, all of the air group member accidents since 2008 occurred during departures or arrivals from improved airfields. The Kwethluk accident is still under investigation.

With the Ravn air group's expanded business has come increased scrutiny. As is the case for every Federal Aviation Regulations Part 135 operator, separate Federal Aviation Administration inspectors are assigned to each of the Ravn air group members, three each to Hageland and Frontier -- for operations, maintenance and avionics -- and five to Era Aviation. Operating under the more stringent Section 121 of the aviation regulations, Era requires operations, maintenance, avionics, dispatch and cabin safety inspectors.

According to the FAA, between October 2011 and May 2014, 752 “surveillance activities” -- encompassing 8,298 hours -- were conducted on Hageland operations. Eighty-three percent of those activities occurred prior to the St. Marys accident. In that period of enhanced surveillance, there were three other accidents at the carrier resulting in minor injuries to passengers and substantial damage to the aircraft.

The FAA classifies many different interactions with air carrier personnel as "surveillance activities," and the 752 figure will likely include everything from observed check rides to a scrutiny of pilot training and maintenance records to ramp checks. In a ramp check, multiple paperwork requests can be made of individual pilots, ranging from just requesting proof of the pilot's license and medical certificate, to inquiring about weight and balance, aircraft registration and more. An inspector can complete multiple ramp checks within an hour, each of which would count as a separate inspection. It is difficult, therefore, to ascertain the stringency of the FAA’s inspection figures based strictly on the number of inspections; essentially, not all inspections are of equal value when assessing an air carrier’s regulatory and safety compliance.

However, the FAA does assert that between July 2009 and just prior to the April 28 arrival of the Air Carrier Evaluation Program team, composed of investigators from outside Alaska, 32 “investigations” were undertaken concerning Hageland itself and numerous others against individuals in the company, who would potentially include pilots and mechanics. Twenty of these cases resulted in either civil penalties or administrative actions, while others resulted in no action or are still pending.

The details of the investigations were not provided to Alaska Dispatch News, though suspension of pilot certificates would be an example of administrative action.

According to a recent letter from FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to the NTSB, the ACEP team was in Alaska until May 9. During that period, an evaluation was conducted of Hageland's main base of operations in Anchorage and dispatch operation in Palmer. Inspectors also conducted station and ramp inspections in Anchorage, Barrow, Bethel, Deadhorse, Fairbanks, Palmer and St. Marys. Multiple en route inspections, where inspectors fly along to observe crew operations on scheduled flights, were also conducted in this period.

Based on the 12-day audit, Huerta writes that "Several areas of concern within the broad areas identified by the Board were documented by the team and communicated to (Hageland) key management personnel and the FAA certificate management team responsible for the oversight of (Hageland)."

Huerta further noted that an ACEP team had separately evaluated Era Aviation in June 2013, before the safety recommendations were issued. That review "revealed weak areas within the broad categories identified by the Board" in the 2014 Hageland evaluation. The agency plans to send another ACEP team to Era Aviation in fiscal year 2015 to include "a review of the discrepancies previously identified in the June 2013 ACEP audit."

Finally, the FAA's director of flight standards service and his deputy will travel to Alaska this month and meet with regional and office personnel "to discuss the HoTH situation and assess progress being made by the certificate holders to correct the identified deficiencies."

Based on statements issued at the time the recommendations were released and in the weeks since, the key point that both governmental agencies and Ravn Alaska all agreed upon is that audits on some level of at least Hageland Aviation’s operations were necessary. Whether or not this would have been accomplished without the urgent safety recommendation from the NTSB is a point of contention that is unlikely to be resolved.

Thirteen accidents and two incidents have occurred involving Ravn Alaska air group members since Hageland and Frontier Flying Service came together in 2008. Seven of them have been attributed to errors committed by the pilot and two to mechanical difficulties, while five remain under investigation. One incident in Fairbanks was due to air traffic control error.

Huerta intends to keep the NTSB updated on the FAA response to the recommendations and will provide another written response by Aug. 31, 2015. Probable cause reports for all the open incident and accident investigations will be released in coming months, with the fatality accidents likely requiring the greatest amount of time.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com.