Alaska News

Better maps no silver bullet for flying safe in Alaska's mountainous terrain

The Washington Post recently reported on efforts to update Alaska maps to modern standards. The piece highlighted the efforts of one Anchorage company, in particular, and -- to illustrate the importance of such maps -- the article pointed to a fatal 2006 plane crash in Mystic Pass.

This accident, which took the lives of pilot Alex Stack and passenger Aric Beane, occurred, the Post writes, because unlike their friends, who were following in a "nimble" Cessna, Stack and Beane could not turn back in their aircraft. The article claims "Stack and Beane, in a larger plane carrying most of the 1,000-pound moose, were forced to press on, eyes glued to a handheld GPS screen, praying its fusion of satellite signals and government terrain maps would guide them to safety."

Stack was flying a de Havilland Beaver with a handheld Garmin 426 GPS. While traversing the pass en route from Galena to Lake Hood, the aircraft hit a ridgeline at 3,100 feet, killing both Stack and Beane.

"Unfortunately," concludes the Post, "the maps were wrong."

But the suggestion that inaccurate mapping data caused the fatal crash doesn't match the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation of the accident.

The National Transportation Safety Board report, which wasn't mentioned in the article, determined the probable cause of the crash was "the pilot's continued VFR flight into instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in an in-flight collision with mountainous terrain."

Based on his most recent medical, Stack had 2,700 hours and a private pilot's license. Pilots operating under Visual Flight Rules (commonly abbreviated VFR) in the Mystic Pass area are required to have 3 miles visibility and to maintain minimum distances from clouds (500 feet below them, 1,000 feet above them and 2,000 feet horizontally distant from them). A handheld GPS device is thus an additional mapping resource but not critical to flight safety. It's only when VFR pilots inadvertently fly below the stated minimums that they find themselves relying more heavily upon it to navigate -- though at that point, it's instrument flight rules, with all its attendant training and equipment requirements, they should be adhering to.


"I'll be the first to admit, improving the accuracy of USGS mapping data in Alaska is definitely a step in the right direction, and long overdue," NTSB's Alaska Region Chief Clint Johnson said recently, "but to say that the current mapping data played a part in the 2006 Mystic Pass accident is, well, just simply inaccurate."

Accidents caused by pilots flying VFR into IMC (or instrument meteorological conditions) are not uncommon in Alaska.

"Unfortunately," Johnson said, "we're not inventing new ways to crash airplanes here in Alaska, or nationwide for that matter. This type of accident is one that NTSB investigators see time and time again, often with devastating results."

Between 1994 and 2013 there have been 69 accidents in the state due to flying under VFR into IMC or into "adverse weather conditions." Such accidents occur in both general aviation -- as in Mystic Pass -- and commercial flying. Most recently, last November's Hageland Aviation accident in St. Marys, which is still under investigation, occurred in weather conditions consisting of overcast clouds at 300 feet. That flight was operated under VFR when it collided with the terrain, taking the lives of the pilot and three passengers.

For non-instrument-rated pilots, encountering instrument conditions can be especially difficult, as they generally possess neither the training nor experience to fly without reference to the ground. An example of how difficult it can be to maintain controlled flight occurred in 2012 when a private pilot crashed while en route from Fort Yukon to Fairbanks. After encountering IMC he contacted Anchorage Center and received an IFR clearance. (Any pilot can request an IFR clearance.)

The pilot's last reported altitude was 6,800 feet before the aircraft hit a ridge in the White Mountains at 1,600 feet. The NTSB determined the pilot likely suffered spatial disorientation inside the clouds, resulting in an unrecoverable spiral and spin -- a conclusion supported by fact that the left wing separated in flight due to aerodynamic forces.

Every aircraft accident happens for a very specific set of reasons. There is a tendency to make generalized statements about Alaska aviation however, to claim, as in the Washington Post article, that pilots here are "flying in conditions that are inherently dangerous." This is a convenient way to ignore difficult questions about decision-making and judgment and to blame a mountain or a cloud for a tragedy. But as much as enhanced mapping would be welcome to all Alaskans who enjoy the outdoors, aviation safety is not served by avoiding the responsibilities of VFR flight.

What happened in Mystic Pass in 2006 was many things, but unexpectedly encountering tall mountains was not one of them.

This accident echoes countless others that have plagued the region since aviation's earliest days here and while every technological advance has been heralded as a game changer, none has yet to be effective in altering certain pilot behaviors.

Some pilots do fly successfully VFR into IMC with a handheld GPS. It is not advisable, nor is it smart, nor is it legal, but it can be done. Pilots should consider, though, whether they believe such a device -- even with the best maps -- is an adequate substitute for the training and proficiency required by instrument flight rules.

Maps can show pilots where they are, but in the clouds even the best maps in the world will not help a pilot execute a steep turn nor maintain a steady airspeed, nor, most importantly, show the way to the weather conditions needed to safely get home.

The best way to survive VFR into IMC is to avoid it, and never count on a GPS to get you through conditions that require an instrument rating to navigate.

Contact Colleen Mondor at

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail

Colleen Mondor

Colleen Mondor is the author of "The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska." Find her at or on Twitter @chasingray.