Every year, with tragic regularity, Alaska's aviation community suffers through hunting season. In 2011 there were 29 accidents between August 15th and September 30th, in 2012 there were 26 and in 2013 there were 25. Overwhelmingly, the causes of these crashes are errors committed by the pilots. A review of some common mistakes from the past can go a long way toward making 2014 a better season for everyone.
Loss of control at low altitude has become so ubiquitous during hunting season that it is often referred to as a "moose stall" in Alaska. As Harry Kieling of the Alaska Air Safety Foundation explained in an interview earlier this year, "The only way to avoid loss of control at low altitude is to prevent it. The problem with attempted recovery is it is unlikely at low altitude regardless of skill and proficiency."
Flying low and slow with a high angle of attack often results in loss of control but can be prevented through the use of angle of attack indicators, a recommended piece of equipment that alerts pilots when they are nearing a critical angle of attack and gives them time to adjust the angle before a stall occurs.
National Transportation Safety Board investigator Chris Shaver of the Alaska Regional office also prepared a video last year on loss of control at low altitude that illustrates ways in which it can be prevented that is well worth watching prior to flight.
Another frequent error occurs after the hunting is over and aircraft are loaded. A desire to minimize trips and save on time and fuel can lead to overloading or, even worse, improper loading resulting in an aircraft stall on takeoff. As it is often difficult to weigh meat in the field, caution must always be the rule. Multiple trips may be tedious but they get everyone home safely. Further, pilots should never load racks or other items on the aircraft exterior, even though old bush pilot stories might make the practice seem appealing. The disrupted airflow presented by loads of this nature is a proven contributor to aircraft stalls. It's also illegal.
The single most important rule of thumb for pilots during hunting season, however, is that one person flies the aircraft while everyone else looks out the windows. Complacency and distraction are the unwritten impetus behind many accidents and the easiest to avoid. Pilots hunt only when on the ground. The rest of the time, flying is what matters and must consume all of their attention regardless of other temptations.
Five people died and two suffered serious injuries in hunting-related crashes last year. Refresh your memories about those accidents and commit to making this season as safe as possible. Learn to return and live to hunt again in the future.
Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen[at]alaskadispatch.com