The Federal Aviation Administration is issuing an unprecedented warning to Alaska's charter and commuter air operators following a yearlong spike in plane crash injuries and deaths.
A letter this month from the agency's Alaska office asks more than 200 carriers operating in Alaska for their "help in solving a significant safety issue that impacts the aviation community and the traveling public in Alaska."
The new FAA initiative targets carriers that operate in the state under the FAA's "Part 135" designation, encompassing commuter flights as well as on-demand flightseeing or other charter flights.
Accidents by Part 135 operations resulted in 24 deaths or serious injuries of pilots or passengers in the past 12 months, all apparently caused by the same type of mishap, FAA officials say.
The crashes all involved what the agency calls "Controlled Flight into Terrain" — an airworthy plane under the pilot's control flies into rising or flat ground, often in low cloud ceilings, reduced visibility or flat light that makes it difficult to pick out topography below.
The letter signed by Alaska Flight Standards Division Manager Clint Wease urges carriers to shore up their safety cultures from the top down and review operations to identify any hazards. It contains no new regulations or enforcement actions.
"Most CFIT accidents are because of inappropriate or nonexistent safety cultures, leaving all decisions up to and placing all responsibilities on a pilot who may have to make split second, life or death decisions," Wease wrote.
Often, the FAA said, the crashes occurred when pilots flew from conditions where they could see the terrain — known as visual flight conditions — into conditions where they needed to quickly shift to instrument navigation or turn back.
Several of the accidents occurred in aircraft with advanced avionics capable of instrument flight and with experienced pilots, according to the letter.
"These kind of accidents are very preventable accidents," Wease said in an interview Wednesday.
Addressing the issue
The letter came with a series of safety recommendations, including using instrument navigation instead of visual flight whenever possible and training pilots to deal with unexpectedly flying into instrument conditions.
The FAA action comes as this aviation-dependent state enters its busiest flying season: Summer tourism leading into fall hunts.
"I've never seen a letter like this before," said pilot and photographer Rob Stapleton.
"I think this is, 'Come on guys, buckle up, get your guys trained … make sure you've got pilots that are not cowboys out there. And we're watching,'" he said.
Numerous carriers contacted for this article did not respond to requests for comment.
The president of the 200-member Alaska Air Carriers Association said Thursday he'd talked with a number of operators surprised at the letter.
The general reaction, AACA President Matt Atkinson said, was "perhaps a little bit of angst and a feeling of pointing out where there's a lack of success where they think there has been a lot of success."
A number of carriers already practice the recommendations, Atkinson said. Statistics also show that, the last year aside, Part 135 accidents have decreased significantly in the past decade.
He urged the agency to work with Alaska's congressional delegation on more funding for aviation safety measures such as weather reporting technology and maintaining equipment that allows instrument-based runway approaches.
"We always want to work to improve safety and not have any accidents or incidents," Atkinson said. "The culture has improved significantly over the past 10 years and that's made a difference."
Five crashes led to the FAA tally of 24 fatalities or serious injuries in 12 months, according to National Transportation Safety Board reports. An additional helicopter crash apparently not included in the FAA number added another serious injury, bringing the total to 25.
The NTSB reports describe the factors surrounding the accidents, but not the probable cause:
- A June 2015 crash of a Promech Air Inc. de Havilland Otter killed all nine people on a flightseeing trip under visual flight rules. Marginal visual meteorological conditions were reported at the time. The plane was equipped with automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast technology, also known as Capstone, that provides situational awareness for pilots by displaying the plane’s position over terrain coupled with a moving map.
- A July 2015 crash of a Wings of Alaska Cessna 207A commuter flight from Juneau to Hoonah killed the pilot and seriously injured four passengers. The flight was also operating under visual flight rules and equipped with Capstone technology.
- A January Wright Air Service Inc. Cessna Caravan flying from Fairbanks to Anaktuvuk Pass crashed southwest of the pass, injuring eight people, five of them seriously. The flight was under visual flight rules. The pilot reported flat light conditions.
- An April crash of a Sunrise Aviation Inc. amphibious Cessna 206 commuter flight from Wrangell to Angoon killed three people including the pilot and seriously injured a fourth. The flight was under visual flight rules. The pilot in radio traffic told the company’s director of operations that low clouds and reduced visibility prompted him to try an alternate route.
- A May 5 crash of an Era Helicopters helicopter on Norris Glacier left the pilot seriously injured on a support trip to a remote dog sledding camp. The pilot reported flat light conditions.
- A May 6 crash of a Temsco helicopter near Skagway killed the pilot, who had dropped a passenger and a dozen sled dogs on Denver Glacier. The helicopter was operating under visual flight rules. Marginal visual meteorological conditions were reported in the area.
The FAA's safety system is largely based on voluntary compliance with regulatory standards.
Overall, Alaska's plane crash statistics have improved, Wease said. The last two fiscal years set historic lows.
The recent spike in accidents triggered a response in part due to a new goal that's part of a "compliance philosophy" issued by the FAA administrator in June 2015, according to Wease. The goal is to have no more than one fatal or serious injury accident per 100,000 hours of flight time by 2018. That translates to 16 fatal or serious injury accidents per year in Alaska, Wease said.
"Everybody wants to do the right thing," he said. "To go out and beat them over the head with the enforcement hammer may not be the appropriate way to do it at times."
There were a total of 12 accidents during the last fiscal year among Part 135 operators in Alaska, Wease said; two were fatal or serious injury accidents.
FAA inspectors and managers will follow up with operators to document any safety changes they make, Wease said.
Seeking out safety
The FAA also encouraged operators to seek assistance from the Medallion Foundation, a nonprofit formed in 2001 to increase aviation safety in Alaska that receives state and federal funding. Medallion operates 21 flight simulators around the state, and also trains pilots on risk assessment and avionics equipment.
Several of the carriers involved in the crashes referenced in the letter are or were members of Medallion, which requires operators to voluntarily agree to operate above minimum federal safety requirements.
Wright is a member. Promech and Wings of Alaska were members but were suspended prior to the fatal crashes, according to Jerry Rock, the foundation's executive director. Both carriers failed audits required to maintain membership and were on a yearlong suspension to correct deficiencies, Rock said. He couldn't say what the audits revealed.
Medallion doesn't disclose member suspensions to the FAA, he said.
"It's a volunteer program. The FAA can look at our website just like anybody else can."
The NTSB was not named in the letter. That agency investigates crashes but has no regulatory role, said Clint Johnson, NTSB's Alaska chief.
"That's what the FAA does," Johnson said. "All we can do is recommend."
The NTSB did flex its authority following two fatal Alaska plane crashes two years ago.
The agency issued two safety recommendations, one of them urgent, in 2014 after investigating several accidents involving Ravn Alaska air group members dating back more than two years including two multiple fatality accidents involving Hagelund Aviation in St. Marys and the Bethel area.
FAA officials said they don't expect a similar action from NTSB on the current situation.
Johnson said he applauded the FAA's letter.
"It's a movement in the right direction," he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Medallion Foundation's executive director. He is Jerry Rock, not Jerry Rust.