How safe is it to fly in rural Alaska?

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch News,Joshua Saul


Michael Schoder -- Terry Smith's friend and pilot -- writes on his blog that "it is almost unimaginable that Terry Smith would have flown into terrain. TAS, or 'True Airspeed' as we call him, was the best of the best. The last person on planet earth I would suspect would do so."

DILLINGHAM -- Wild and rugged Alaska has always been a dangerous place to fly, but the people who know it best -- the pilots who daily crisscross the wilderness here and the safety experts back in the state's largest city -- say travel by air is getting safer. The high-profile death of former Sen. Ted Stevens and four others in the crash of a single-engine Otter on a mountainside 17 miles north of this community, however, underlines that there are still risks.

Mountainous terrain, fickle coastal weather, limited weather reports and great distances between airports make Alaska flying inherently more dangerous than in most of the Lower 48. Still, an emphasis on safety, improving technology and other factors have cut the average death rate among commercial pilots by about 13 percent since 2003, according to figures from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

"The accident rate is down, especially if you look back 15 or 20 years," said Carl Siebe, board chairman of the Alaska Aviation Safety Foundation. "We are definitely making progress. It's about two steps forward and one step back."

On the ground in Dillingham, a fishing village on Bristol Bay, pilots point to better airports, something Stevens helped fund with federal dollars; Federal Aviation Administration safety programs, something Stevens helped fund with federal dollars; and a greater emphasis on safe operation, something advocated by Stevens and pushed by the Medallion Program, in large part, funded by state and federal dollars.

Safety, said 37-year-old Chris Miller, director of stations for Grant Aviation, is, "a business decision we've made that we're not going to be the ones making headlines." The fearless, hairy-chested Bush pilot of old willing to fly anywhere, anytime for any reason, might have played well in books and movies, he added, but "the sexiness wears off when the coffins come out."

Just before Miller made that observation, a military C-130 Hercules rolled down the local runway past the windows of Grant. It was the same plane that had flown back to Anchorage the bodies of Stevens, 86; GCI Inc., executive Dana Tindall, 48; and her 16-year-old daughter Corey; former Stevens aide Bill Phillips, 56; and the pilot, 62-year-old Theron "Terry" Smith, of Eagle River. All died Monday in the crash of a GCI-owned, turbo-powered, single-engine Otter floatplane. Four others -- former NASA chief Sean O'Keefe, his son, Kevin; businessman Jim Morhard; and William "Willy" Phillips Jr., a son of Bill Phillips' -- survived the accident.

An Alaska-ignorant national press attracted to the 49th state by Steven's death has been focused on the flight safety issue in the wake of the crash. To the average American reporter, the single-engine airplane is an exotic machine, something right out of the movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark," even if the airplane is to many in rural Alaska the local taxi. People die in plane accidents in Alaska the way they die in automobile accidents in the rest of the country.

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National Transportation Safety Board photo
The wreckage of the de Havilland Otter in the Muklng Hills near Dillingham.

The same can be said for airplane crashes in Alaska today, even if the rate of death appears to be slowly declining despite significant year-to-year variations. According to NTSB numbers, 11 people have died in crashes so far this year. There were only five in 2009, but there were 18 the year before that. Since 2000, 139 people have died in crashes in the state, an average of about 14 per year, but the per capita death rate is better than in the decade before.

One aviation safety expert credits insurance companies, in part. They have raised rates so high that airlines can no longer afford to have an accident of any sort, making them extra cautious. Various safety programs, too, have stepped up efforts to change the can-do culture of Alaska flying to something more safety oriented.

And this is part of what makes the latest crash so baffling to so many.

'It still comes down to pilot decision-making'

The pilot in this case was an Alaskan who grew up flying and became part of the push for improved airline safety statewide. Terry Smith was at the controls of an Otter owned by GCI, a statewide telecommunications company, when the plane flew into the side of a mountain. A former chief pilot for Alaska Airlines, Smith taught floatplane safety for the FAA. And friends say that when it came to flying he talked safety, safety and more safety.

He was in Southwest Alaska on a temporary assignment flying fishermen to and from GCI's Agulowak Lodge because the regular pilot there -- Dana Tindall's husband -- was reportedly on vacation. GCI uses the lodge, in part, to entertain clients, politicians, consultants and friends. Smith and GCI founder Ron Duncan are old friends.

Smith had suffered some health problems in recent years, according to various sources, and temporarily lost his certificate to fly, but he was reportedly healthy and fit to take the controls when he headed for Bristol Bay to help out at the lodge. He had passed a flight physical, but what emotional issues he might have been dealing with are hard to say.

Only days before he went to work at the lodge, he was at the wake for his son-in-law -- Alaska Air National Guard Maj. Aaron Malone. Malone died July 28 in the crash of a C-17 at Elmendorf Air Force Base on the outskirts of Anchorage. Friends said Smith took Malone's death hard and was looking forward to the opportunity to get away from the city for a time into the wild.


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National Transportation Safety Board photo
Aerial view of the scene of the de Havilland Otter crash in the Muklng Hills near Dillingham.

Former Alaska State Parks Director Jerry Lewanski, who spent years as a Chugach State Park ranger studying accidents, once observed that true accidents are the rarest of events. Usually, he said, when you deconstruct events, you find one of the elements leading up to a death or serious injury is something that interferes with judgment.

Emotional stress, he said, can often be one of those things -- only if it even slows the reaction time of people when some thing else goes wrong. "It still comes down to pilot decision-making," said Miller.

Mark Madden, professor of aviation technology at the University of Alaska Anchorage and vice-chairman of the Alaska Aviation Safety Foundation, agreed, but he notes sometimes judgments in the pilot's seat must be made in fractions of a second, and they can spell life or death.

A friend of Smith's, Madden has no clue as to what caused the Otter to crash. But like all experienced pilots, he knows that about half of all accidents are attributed in whole or part to pilot error.

Terry Smith: 'True Airspeed'

Some in Dillingham say the crash of GCI's Otter would be consistent with a pilot on a flight from Aleknagik Lake, where the Agulowak Lodge is located, to the Nushugak River hitting a squall and turning left to avoid the weather. Pilots moving away from weather generally turn left because they have a better view out the left window.

The weather at the time of Monday's crash was intermittently terrible. Flight logs at Grant Aviation show three flights scheduled for Monday morning making it out, but two of the four in the afternoon were canceled. Both were headed north toward the Muklung Hills where Smith crashed.

But nobody really wants to think about the possibility that Smith made a mistake in bad weather and flew the plane into the mountains. In the world of pilots, Smith was revered. "I caution everybody to hold judgment," said Madden, who noted there are a lot of things that could have gone wrong to lead up to the crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board has said it isn't even close to making a ruling yet.

"The consensus from all of the pilots I know that knew Terry, and knew well about his flying, concur that some factor other than (his) judgment and commitment to safety flight was at play," added friend and pilot Michael Schoder.

Schorder wrote on his blog that "it is almost unimaginable that Terry Smith would have flown into terrain. TAS, or 'True Airspeed' as we call him, was the best of the best. The last person on planet earth I would suspect would do so."

True air speed is something of little note to most people but of vital concern to pilots, given that a Super Cub flying at 60 mph indicated speed with a 60 mph tailwind is going a lot faster than the speedometer would show. Some have speculated that tailwinds, downdrafts or sheers, all forms of wind, could have contributed to the accident that put the Otter that Smith was flying into the mountain.

NTSB is hoping to interview the survivors of the crash to find out what they know about the weather and what was going on with the plane just before it went down. The federal agency says they are not yet up to talking.

Several pilots, having seen pictures of the crash scene, are wondering if one of Smith's last acts might have been to do what he could to try to save the lives. They note that if the Otter had gone in only 100 feet or so to the left of where it landed, it would have hit a patch of rough and rugged rock that likely would have ripped the plane apart. But the Otter went down in a thicket of alder brush estimated 10 to 15 feet high. The brush appears to have cushioned the landing to some degree and left the fuselage largely intact. The survivors were found still strapped inside.

Bo Darden, 69, who flies freight out of Dillingham in an Otter exactly like the one that crashed, was back in the air Thursday ferrying fuel and supplies. The latest crash was not the first he has witnessed. "Accidents run in spurts," he said. "We had a good five to seven years, but now it's gone to hell in a hand basket. Why, I'm not sure."

He wondered if technology, which made flying safer, might have reached the point where it's making flying less so. "Guys had less to work with, which made them more alert to the dangers," he said. "Technology has made them lazy and less alert to the dangers."

Aviation experts said that is an issue of concern, but it's a mixed bag. Siebe noted that when planes on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta were outfitted with what the FAA calls Capstone technology that enabled them to instantly access weather radar to see what was going on ahead of them, accident rates dropped 60 to 64 percent.

"When pilots are provided with other tools to make in-flight decisions, they can make better in-flight decisions," he said. With something like Capstone, Siebe said, Smith might have been able to see a squall coming and guide the Otter safely around it -- if, indeed, as many believe here, weather played a factor in the crash.

And everyone agrees that weather is a huge factor in Alaska aviation safety. The better pilots know the weather, the safer they are, said Tom Tucker of Tucker Aviation in Dillingham, who flew the helicopter that first responded to Monday's crash.

"We're living in an area where weather is made," Dillingham pilot Bo Darden added."It's made here, and it spins off somewhere else."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com and Joshua Saul at jsaul(at)alaskadispatch.com.