The National Transportation Safety Board is calling for new federal regulations to safeguard Ketchikan flightseeing tours following years of deadly crashes, several of them involving cruise ship passengers and bad weather.
Seven flightseeing crashes in and around Ketchikan since 2007 have killed 31 people and seriously injured 13 others despite a longstanding voluntary safety program signed by flight companies, according to a 20-page report the NTSB released Tuesday.
Now the agency wants the Federal Aviation Administration to replace the voluntary program with special rules for Ketchikan requiring weather training for pilots, including how to assess conditions while they’re flying.
The board is also calling on the National Weather Service to work with the FAA to develop a regulation for flightseeing operators that imposes weather minimums — limits addressing visibility and ceiling height — even more conservative than federal law requires.
“Ketchikan is no stranger to the Alaska NTSB. We’ve been down there for many years involved in very similar accidents,” said Clint Johnson, the agency’s Alaska region chief. “We’ve made recommendations before. Some of those recommendations have been adopted, some have not. This is raising the bar even higher for the tourism industry and for weather minimums in the area for the tour operators.”
During Ketchikan’s busy air tour season between April and September, about a dozen operators conduct air tours for passengers. Several Ketchikan flightseeing operators contacted Tuesday said they were still reviewing the recommendations and declined to comment.
The report does not specifically mention the role cruise ships play in Ketchikan’s flightseeing sector. But on any given summer day, the ships can disgorge thousands of passengers, some looking for a quick trip into the thickly forested, fjord-laced Misty Fjords National Monument just beyond town before their ship heads out.
One 2015 crash in Misty Fjords killed eight cruise-ship passengers and the pilot of a Promech Air flight tour. A midair collision in 2019 involving two planes carrying passengers from the same cruise ship left six dead and another 10 injured.
Most recently, a Southeast Aviation de Havilland DC-2 Beaver left Misty Fjords in August 2021 and crashed in steep, forested terrain, killing the pilot and all five passengers from the cruise ship Nieuw Amsterdam.
In August, the families of four of the Southeast Aviation passengers filed suit against Holland America Line, the air service company and the pilot’s estate, alleging the Seattle-based cruise company pressures excursion operators to take unnecessary risks to meet cruise schedules and doesn’t warn passengers of dangers.
Federal investigators determined the probable cause of last year’s Southeast Aviation crash to be the pilot’s decision to keep flying into deteriorating weather. A series of passenger photographs later collected from their phones showed clouds obscuring mountainous terrain near the crash site.
The new NTSB report cites the importance of weather training for pilots, given the rapidly changing and localized conditions due to Ketchikan’s “persistent onshore wind from the southwest that carries abundant moisture from the Pacific Ocean” as well as weather systems that can funnel wind and precipitation into valleys.
The recommendations stem from a review of fatal air tour crashes in Ketchikan from 2007 to 2021, NTSB officials say. The board reevaluated the effectiveness of 13 air-tour safety recommendations issued to the FAA between 2008 and 2017.
The FAA’s response to many of the recommendations involved voluntary actions either no longer in effect or ineffective at mitigating the hazards of rapidly changing weather in mountainous terrain, the report states.
It specifically references a longstanding voluntary agreement among Ketchikan air tour companies for the congested Misty Fjords area that among other things calls for specific flight paths and radio frequencies — but not weather minimums.
Southeast Aviation signed the agreement but the company’s plane was not following one of the standard routes last year. Investigators later determined the FAA’s reliance on voluntary compliance with the agreement was a contributing factor in the crash.
FAA officials have also emphasized their use of Medallion Foundation training programs to help pilots navigate changing weather conditions, as well as new pilot training before every season, the report states. But Medallion closed in 2019, and NTSB officials say the FAA can’t oversee training effectively because it’s not required.
The new report suggests special regulations like those put into place after a string of fatal accidents in the Grand Canyon and Hawaii. Those regulations included establishing minimum flight altitudes, enhanced equipment safety requirements and airspace limitations for certain geographic areas.
The NTSB is not a rule-making agency and can only make recommendations. The FAA, which can issue air safety regulations, is not bound to adopt the recommendations.
An FAA spokesman emailed a statement saying the agency sees improving Alaska’s aviation safety as one of its top priorities, and last year “undertook a sweeping examination of safety issues specific to the challenges of flying in the state.”
The statement listed ways the FAA is working on aviation safety in Alaska, including increasing and improving weather data reporting and forecasting, expanding satellite-based air-traffic control coverage, improving navigation charting and publishing new GPS-guided routes that allow pilots to avoid icing conditions.
The statement made no specific reference to the NTSB report but said the FAA takes such recommendations seriously and officials will respond “to the agency within an appropriate timeframe.”