In the wake of the records release this week on a fatal 2013 crash involving an Alaska State Troopers helicopter, the circumstances surrounding an earlier flight, to Kodiak in 2009, have come into sharp focus. An interview between National Transportation and Safety Board investigators and Sherry Hassell, the troopers' Aircraft Section supervisor who retired in 2013, raised the issue of pilot pressure on that flight. According to her statement, Hassell recalled:
Shortly after she started work for the section, this pilot was asked to fly a Cessna 208 to Kodiak Island and pick up some people. After checking the weather, he informed her that the weather was not good and he did not want to go. When she informed the colonel (Commander of AWT), the response was that the pilot needed to "get in the plane and go."
Alaska Public Safety Commissioner Gary Folger, the former commander named in Hassell's statement, has denied the implication that he influenced pilot Rod Wilkinson's decision to take that flight, insisting in an email to the Anchorage Daily News that "I have never made someone fly, it's entirely up to the pilot."
The issue of pilot pressure has been part of the aviation landscape in Alaska since its earliest days. Kotzebue airline owner Archie Ferguson was infamous for pushing his pilots to fly, as recounted in this 1943 observation by author Jean Potter in her book "The Flying North":
He is driven to distraction when one of his men is weather bound away from Kotzebue. "Christ," he will yell over the radio, with other airway stations listening. "I suppose yer boozin' or God knows what yer doin'. The weather's fine here. Come on back!" He is enraged when one of the pilots muffs a takeoff from Kotzebue's frozen winter runway. He will stand by the field jumping, hitching up his pants, shouting and swearing. "Christ, hurry up! I'm losin' five hundreds bucks a day! Oh Jeezus, I guess I'll have ta do all the flyin' myself!"
Ferguson paid his pilots by commission only, similar to the practice of paying just for flight time, or "when the props are turning," which is still common practice among air taxi operators. This practice can lead pilots to obtain as much flight time as possible in an effort to give a boost to their paychecks. Being paid by salary can create an opposite problem, where pilots can be pushed to "justify their salary" and get in the air.
In decades of observing Alaska's aviation environment, the NTSB has clarified four primary sources of pressure on commercial pilots to accept high risk flights: passengers, U.S. Postal Service delivery policies, self-induced pressure or "bush pilot syndrome," and management attitude. In several studies the agency found that all too often, a flight under Visual Flight Rules into Instrument Meteorological Conditions was not unusual, and largely considered part of the job. The only way to mitigate this attitude was to institute a strong safety culture with firm standards concerning risk assessment from management on down.
One of the primary reasons it's so difficult to quantify pressure to fly is obvious; it is nearly impossible to prove its existence in an accident investigation. There have been cases where the NTSB found anecdotal evidence such as a 2010 accident when a de Havilland Beaver operated by Branch River Air Service impacted the water near Katmai National Park; the pilot and three passengers are missing and presumed dead. Weather conditions along the route from the camp where the aircraft departed suffered low cloud ceilings almost to the water. The pilot reportedly told campers at the site he could not stay to wait out the weather, however, as he had another flight scheduled out of King Salmon later that day.
Also, in 2001, a Piper Cherokee Six operated by LAB Flying Service crashed on a tour flight after departing Skagway; the pilot and five passengers were killed. While a VFR flight plan was in effect, IMC prevailed. The pilot's medical records revealed he was being treated with antidepressants prescribed for anxiety. According to the probable cause report, he told his doctor that "...it often comes on when there is bad weather and he has to fly."
And in 1997, a Cessna Caravan operated by Hageland Aviation Services went into the ocean while inbound to Wainwright, on Alaska's Arctic coast. The pilot and four passengers were killed. That aircraft was also operating under a VFR flight plan while IMC prevailed.
In that accident, the pilot's wife, also a Hageland's employee, asserted to the NTSB that there was no pressure from the passengers or company to fly but then noted the passengers had been scheduled for an earlier flight that was canceled and "...had waited all day to go and were anxious to leave Barrow." The company's director of operations stated that "the pilot may have felt some pressure to conduct the accident flight from the passengers and also from the pilot's own desire to perform satisfactorily for the company." He asserted there was no pressure from the company, however, as the pilot was on salary and "the pilots are paid whether they fly or not".
All of these crashes, and many more like them, were determined to be due to pilot error.
It is largely unknown whether trooper pilot Rod Wilkinson felt pressured by his superior to accept what turned out to be a successful flight to Kodiak in 2009, or if Helo-1 pilot Mel Nading felt self-induced pressure to earn more money when accepting his final flight last March. But the suggestion of pressure within the troopers' Aircraft Section is a concern that must not be casually dismissed. Unlike air taxis and commuters, public use aircraft do not fall under the stricter regulations of Part 135 of the Federal Aviation Regulations and thus have far less oversight from air safety inspectors. Under FAR Part 91, there is no mechanism for outside inspection of the Aircraft Division's operational standards and no way, other than post-accident investigation, for federal agencies to assess its safety structure. By then, of course, it's too late.
While a pilot, whether flying commercially, for public use or for personal purposes, is always ultimately responsible for embarking on a flight, the factors affecting that decision are powerful and potentially dangerous. Pressure is subtle and personal, it calls into mind a pilot's abilities to complete his or her job in a profession where mistakes are rarely forgiven. Whether a superior demands a flight be conducted or a fellow pilot insists he does not consider conditions to be too difficult or a person's life is presented as hanging in the balance, the end result is the same: a pilot is forced to fly based on someone else's decision and not their own. Before the wheels leave the ground, the flight is already compromised and its successful completion in jeopardy.
It's the easiest thing in the world to say a pilot agreed to accept a flight and thus its failure is solely his or her fault. It's much more difficult and expensive to hire aviation professionals who can craft an in-depth operations manual, a risk assessment checklist and a training curriculum that emphasizes safety. As so many commercial operators in Alaska have come to learn the hard way however, successful completion of a flight sometimes means never departing in the first place. Based on the document release, AST's Aircraft Division has yet to fully understand this fact or the steps that must be taken to understand the complexity of pilot pressure.
Colleen Mondor is a former dispatcher for a Fairbanks-based air carrier. Her book, The Map Of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska, details her years working in the Alaska aviation industry. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com.