As 2014 comes to a close, the Alaska aviation community can breathe a collective sigh of relief over dramatically improved accident statistics for the year. According to the National Transportation Safety Board aviation database, through Dec. 25, 2014, there were a total of 74 aircraft accidents in the state, resulting in five fatalities. This is a marked change from 2013, when 35 lives were lost in 94 crashes.
Sifting through safety statistics is a common activity for aviation analysts, but while the data can reveal what happened in a certain place and time, it can only offer clues as to why.
Over the past 10 years, Alaska has suffered an average of 100 aircraft accidents a year, with a high of 127 in 2005 and the lowest number (74) coming this year. About 80 percent of crashes annually involve general aviation or noncommercial flights. Overall, 2013 was the worst year for fatalities since 1997.
As the dramatic difference between 2013 and 2014 makes clear, it is difficult to come away with any broad conclusions from a short period of data and gauging potential permanent improvements in Alaska flight safety statistics requires a longer view. Therefore, year-to-year variations must be considered, at best, with cautious optimism, as determining a reasonable trend is impossible from one year to the next.
"Five years is a reasonable amount of time for a trend," said NTSB Alaska Region Chief Clint Johnson.
This means that while 2013 serves as a tragic anomaly compared to previous years, 2014 could simply be another anomaly -- albeit a far more positive one.
"Dating back to the late 1990s, when I first joined the NTSB, our office was working about 130-140 accidents a year here," says Johnson, "and there has been a gradual decline in the overall number of accidents. However, as we've seen recently, that positive trend can change in an instant."
By looking at a larger block of accident figures, the NTSB and Federal Aviation Administration, along with civilian groups like the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation, Alaska Airmen's Association and others can determine the best ways to reduce accidents through more targeted education, enforcement action or technology advancements.
Just as changes to the bush mail bypass system in 2002 resulted in fewer air carriers and have been also credited with sharply reduced commercial accidents (from 321 in the 1990s to 191 in the the 2000s), there are other aspects of the Alaska aviation environment which have drawn the attention of safety advocates.
Earlier this year, the NTSB took the unusual step of issuing an urgent safety recommendation to the FAA concerning oversight of the "regulatory compliance and operational safety programs" of the parent company of the Ravn Alaska air group. The NTSB's concerns extended to all three of Ravn's partner air carriers: Frontier Flying Service, Era Aviation (not associated with Era Helicopters) and Hageland Aviation, which were collectively responsible for a string of accidents and incidents between 2012 and 2014 resulting in six fatalities.
Concerns about weather reporting resources continue to dominate discussions statewide and were highlighted last month in a comprehensive article at AOPA's website, "Alaska is a weather-poor state," written by AOPA Regional Manager for Alaska Tom George.
Further, general aviation pilots in particular struggle with loss of control at low altitude, the cause of at least four accidents in 2013. Anchorage NTSB investigator Chris Shaver completed a video on this type of accident -- sometimes referred to as "moose stalls" -- that graphically illustrates its tragic outcome.
And in May, the Mat-Su Traffic Working Group announced significant changes to common traffic advisory frequencies to the areas north and west of Anchorage. As reported in Alaska Dispatch News, the group was formed after a series of midairs including one on July 30, 2011 near Amber Lake that killed the four occupants of a Cessna 180. The pilot and passenger of the second aircraft, a Cessna 206, survived. The two pilots were transmitting on different frequencies, each believing he was using the correct one for pilots flying in that area, and were unaware of each other's positions.
"Safety is always the FAA's top priority and improving general aviation safety in Alaska has been one of the FAA's top priorities for more than a decade," said Kerry Long, FAA Alaskan Regional Administrator, when asked to comment on 2014's aviation record. "Since early 2000, we have generally seen a study (sic) reduction in accidents and today Alaskans are enjoying the safest period in the state's aviation history."
"Despite these successes, we're not taking our eyes off our goal of achieving even greater levels of safety," he added. "It takes both government and industry working together in a collaborative way to continually raise the safety bar."
As federal agencies and user groups compare 2013 and 2014 however, some answers will remain stubbornly elusive. One example of this is the July 2013 crash in Soldotna that took the lives of the pilot and all nine passengers and occurred in clear weather on a paved, maintained runway with an aircraft that suffered no contributing mechanical anomalies, according to the NTSB public docket. Addressing problematic pilot decision-making behind such a crash is a daunting, if not impossible, endeavor.
Ultimately, 2014 was a great year for Alaska flying and all those pilots who made thoughtful, conservative flight safety decisions in the past 12 months are to be commended. Their stories are missing from the statistical record, but are the most critical component to aviation's continued success in the state. It would be a fine thing if the most negative aspects of the Bush pilot myth are finally being left behind by the state's 21st century aviators, but it's too early to be anything but hopeful going into 2015.
Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com.