The fatal crash of an Alaska State Troopers helicopter in March 2013 has prompted changes in how the Department of Public Safety launches search-and-rescue missions -- including the implementation of a risk assessment document and the hiring of an aircraft section safety officer.
But operations requiring the use of night-vision goggles are still on hold, even as Alaska's long winter nights approach.
The most storied rescue pilot in Alaska history died March 30, 2013, during what was supposed to be a routine mission to pick up an injured snowmachiner near Larson Lake. Pilot Mel Nading from Anchorage died alongside trooper Tage Toll of Talkeetna and Carl Ober, the 56-year-old injured snowmachiner from Talkeetna.
Nading, 55, saved "hundreds of lives" during his time as a rescue pilot, according to former Alaska trooper director Col. Keith Mallard.
The National Transportation Safety Board has yet to release its final report on what caused the state's five-passenger Eurocopter A-Star 350 B3 to crash in rain, sleet and snow just before midnight.
However, a dump of investigative documents from the federal agency this year described photos taken from an in-cockpit camera. The descriptions are in line with what someone might see if a pilot became disoriented and was struggling to maintain a level flight, the NTSB reported.
The report also raised questions about the training trooper pilots were receiving in the use of night-vision goggles and instrument-based flying.
National Guard still uses night-vision goggles
After the 2013 crash, operations requiring the use of night-vision goggles were suspended and have remained so. There are no immediate plans to reinstate use of the goggles previously worn during rescues made more dangerous by blinding snow and limited daylight of Alaska winters.
Alaska Wildlife Trooper Capt. Bernard Chastain said the department's aircraft section has pilots with thousands of flight hours involving night-vision goggles, but it lacks the structure to implement a more robust program.
"We have discussed it and plan on implementing a (night-vision goggle) program in the future when we have examined all aspects of our current program and make sure that we can provide this service in accordance with federal regulations and our own self-imposed staffing minimums," Chastain said, adding there is no timeline to do so.
Troopers work with other search-and-rescue agencies that still use the goggles. The Alaska National Guard responded the evening of Aug. 31 to Lake Clark National Park to rescue an injured hiker and reported using night vision during the mission.
"The terrain in the area was very steep, and when we arrived on scene it was dark, which required our crews to use night-vision goggles to execute the mission," Lt. Col. Karl Westerlund, director of the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center, said in a press release. Rotor wash from the hovering helicopter knocked a rock loose during the rescue, injuring another hiker on the ground.
Chastain said troopers opted not to assist in that rescue after its pilot completed a safety assessment form and "determined through discussion with another instructor pilot" that the mission would be difficult with their available tools.
Enter the 'risk assessment matrix'
That form is the Department of Public Safety's "risk assessment matrix." It is a work in progress, Chastain said, already in its fourth iteration since the department started using it about six months ago.
When Nading died in the 2013 crash, questions arose about who makes the calls to go airborne. Ultimately, the pilot decided whether it was safe to fly. As of February, a spokesperson said, troopers had changed some guidelines for permitted helicopter flights, including night operations and weather minimums, which involve specific altitudes, airspace and cloud visibility standards.
"Each Department of Public Safety pilot has their own individualized minimums based upon their experience and flight time," the agency said. "Pilots are required to adhere to their minimums at all times."
Now the matrix is used "before (pilots) launch every single mission," Chastain said.
The form includes four categories: pilot experience; weather; type of operation; and equipment, local flying area and crew members. It also includes a preflight information checklist -- blank spaces for notes on time and place, wind conditions and visibility.
In the pilot experience category, one to five points are tallied for things like one year of experience with the Department of Public Safety and less than or equal to 30 days since their last flight. The type of operation category adds points for "hostile environment operation" and "anticipated whiteout/flat light operation," among other criteria.
The risk of the mission is considered "low" if the points add up to 15 or fewer. In those cases, approval doesn't need an OK from another person. If the risk is "moderate" to "high," pilots are required to get additional permission to launch.
"Peer pilots who have the same or greater experience are asked to review the mission and whether or not it's safe and how the risk stacks up," Chastain said.
It's the industry standard, he said, and everyone using the form believes it's a more efficient process.
"I haven't heard a single thing about slowing down the process," he said. "But in fact, I would encourage that whole process to slow down a little bit. Deciding when to launch is based on a large number of factors. We don't want to make brash decisions and go too quick."
Other safety additions
There are a couple of other additions to the troopers' aircraft section.
It now requires its civilian pilots, most of whom fly fixed-wing aircraft, to undergo regular training. Chastain said that situational training has happened Outside. The pilots trained before but now it's an annual occurrence, he said.
Fixed-wing pilots are frequently used for search and rescue; troopers have deployed the pilots for hundreds of successful searches, said Chastain. They will all be using the matrix once properly trained. The idea is to use the matrix for all department flights, not just search and rescue.
Additionally, the aircraft section hired a safety officer in 2013. The full-time position works closely with pilots on search-and-rescue operations and routinely rides with the Anchorage-based troopers' helicopter pilot, providing assistance.