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For Alaska pilots, sometimes winter survival means not taking off

  • Author: Colleen Mondor
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 14, 2015

Last November, during a National Transportation Safety Board hearing on the March 2013 fatal accident of the Alaska State Troopers Helo-1 helicopter, investigators discussed the survival gear carried onboard the rotorcraft by pilot Mel Nading. It included what the troopers' relief pilot told investigators was "enough gear where we could live comfortably for several days, food, shelter, sleeping bags and all that stuff."

This equipment would have been adequate for the two troopers aboard the helicopter and the stranded snowmachiner they rescued on the night of the crash to make camp and wait out the weather. But Nading ultimately elected not to stay on the ground after picking up their passenger, and the helicopter crashed a few minutes after takeoff in poor weather.

A pilot's decision to postpone departure is always fraught with complications, both real and imagined. This is a particular concern in the Alaska wilderness during winter. There will be a level of discomfort when choosing to stay on the ground in the Bush, regardless of the gear you might have, and that alone can be enough to propel some to depart -- or not land somewhere to wait out weather -- against their better judgment.

"Everyone wants to be comfortable; it's human nature," said Brian Horner, president of Learn to Return Training Systems in Anchorage. "You have the choice to try to go home to a hot meal and your family or misery. It's hard to pick misery."

In the winter, choosing misery is especially difficult, as it means not only being uncomfortable but potentially freezing to death as well. It's not the kind of decision that can be spontaneously made; the mindset needed to successfully hunker down must begin hours before, when the pilot leaves home.

"There are three necessary components to winter survival," explains Harry Kieling, of the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation. "The right clothes, the right training and the right attitude: 'I am a survivor.' Without all of those, your chances are greatly diminished."

The emphasis on clothing is a key part of the decision-making process, even before a pilot leaves home.

"If you aren't wearing the right clothing when you get into the airplane, you are as much as saying you are not going to spend the night out there -- you are almost forced to make a bad decision," Kieling said.

In some cases, those clothes on your back might be all that you can reach. This is particularly true if the aircraft has been damaged in a crash.

Further, if a pilot is debating whether to take off or stay grounded, just the need to search for and put on more clothing in the cold -- even if the aircraft is perfectly fine -- could tip the scales toward the decision to depart. It may seem such a small thing wouldn't matter, but pilots around Alaska must make decisions like these every day.

"Get-home-itis" is the excuse often pointed to by professionals seeking to understand why pilots will depart against the more reasonable decision to stay put. It has reached syndrome status for some researchers, and is often discussed when exploring the reasons behind accidents that occur in forecasted poor weather conditions.

This attitude, which demands throwing all caution -- and instruction -- to the wind and getting home at all costs, is not exclusive to aviation. It can be found in the wilderness world as well, among climbers, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

Horner's been there, and admits "I've made a bad decision to stumble down a mountain when I shouldn't have."

He traces some of the drive to get home to 21st-century media realities. Odds are if you're overdue, he says, "you're going to end up on the news." This can be hard enough to swallow for those on a private adventure or out with a few friends, but is even more complicated when you are hired to do a job.

"A lot of last words from pilots are 'I'll get you home,' " said Horner.

Those are the words people always want to hear, and far easier to say than "this is all about to get really unpleasant."

That makes the hard decision to stay one of the biggest hurdles to overcome, but there are ways to make the choice easier.

"You can overcome the reluctance to stay the night," points out Kieling, "but you have to address that training with the same commitment as choosing outerwear, boots and mittens (gauntlets) and everything else you have with you." He stressed the need for gauntlets as absolutely critical.

Practice is something pilots are accustomed to; repetitive stall recoveries, touch-and-go's, steep turns, instrument scans -- all are part of flight training. But we rarely think of survival as something to train for.

"Most people try out their survival gear in their living room or on the deck or lawn," Horner said. A more effective simulation would be just like practicing stall recovery -- practice under similar conditions. Taking a winter survival course of any kind allows pilots to move from the unknown to the familiar when it comes to survival. None of this comes with the level of fear or panic that real survival entails, but it gets you closer, which might make all the difference.

For Horner, it always comes down to preparedness.

"Put as much energy into learning good decisions as preparing your gear," he stressed. Kieling echoed the sentiment, adding that pilots need as much confidence in their actions on the ground as they do when they fly.

"You have to know that at 20 below you can survive out there," Kieling said.

Two years ago, Sam Egli of Egli Air Haul was in exactly the position that so many pilots dread. He had to tell his two passengers, a geophysical crew retrieving some equipment, that they would not be taking off from Mt. Mageik as planned. For two days, hunkered down in their iced-over helicopter in exceedingly uncomfortable conditions, they waited out the harsh September weather until rescue could arrive.

Their predicament, of course, was heavily covered in the news -- but the coverage was all overwhelmingly positive. In November 2013, Egli was honored by the Safety Foundation with its inaugural "Right Stuff" award for his "superior decision making skills and moral courage in his decision to stay put on the edge of a volcano in a very exposed location rather than attempt to fly out in icing conditions."

No one will ever know what exactly prompted Mel Nading to take off in Helo-1; it is likely a combination of reasons ranging from internal and external pressures to possible fear or panic or a deep desire to get home. And although that element of the accident, along with so many others like it, will remain a mystery, it can still serve as a lesson for other pilots. Decisions on the ground can be the most important that you will make -- treat them with a high degree of respect and train for them as if your life depends upon it.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen@alaskadispatch.com.

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