By any metric, 2019 was a brutal year for commercial aviation in Alaska. Of the 85 total aircraft accidents within the state, 16 involved air taxis and small commuters, or companies that operate under Part 135 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. Additionally, two accidents, including October’s fatal crash of PenAir Flight 3296, involved Part 121 flights. (The second Part 121 crash resulted in no one hurt.) All together, 16 people died on flights with commercial operators in the state last year, a number nearly double the decade average.
With Part 135 operators accounting for 19% of all accidents last year and 52% of total aviation fatalities, 2019 is statistically both one of the worst years commercial operators have had and startlingly similar to the years that preceded it. On average, in the 2010s, Part 135 operators were involved in 25.4% of fatal crashes. (They accounted for 26.2% in the 2000s and 28.6% in the 1990s.) But with six fatal accidents last year for air taxis and small commuters, 2019 far exceeds the Part 135 fatal crash averages for the past decades. (There were, on average, 3.7 per year in the 2010s and 3.2 in the 2000s). Most worrisome though, the number of commercial fatalities is one of the decade’s highest, a reminder that when a Part 135 operator crashes, it often takes several people down with it.
A deeper look at specific accident reports for the year reveals some useful information. Of the 16 total accidents involving Part 135 operators, eight resulted in substantial damage to the aircraft but no injuries nor fatalities. In all of these, weather was not a factor, and they largely involved taxiing collisions with terrain or equipment, mechanical issues or an unsuitable choice of landing. The remaining eight accidents range from a passenger sustaining serious injuries after hitting her head during turbulence on a Sound Aviation flight, to the multiple fatalities suffered in the mid-air collision between Taquan Air and Mountain Air Service on May 13. It is these accidents that should draw the most attention from the flying public.
After a devastating crash on Jumbo Mountain in 2018 that resulted in many serious injuries, Ketchikan-based Taquan Air was involved in two separate fatality crashes in 2019. Collectively, these three accidents, all of which involved floatplanes, resulted in eight fatalities and 20 injuries in 10 months. (Six people were killed in the mid-air crash and two in a subsequent crash in Metlakatla.) The full docket on the Jumbo Mountain investigation, released in November, revealed that at the time of that crash, Taquan’s director of operations was based in Anchorage and was also employed as director of operations for Grant Aviation, which itself was involved in a fiery accident in Bethel in July 2019 resulting in six injuries. The Jumbo Mountain investigation, the Ketchikan mid-air, in which weather was not a factor, and the shockingly low time the Metlakatla pilot had spent flying floatplanes, (he was hired one month prior to crashing with only 5 hours on floats) cumulatively raise a series of questions concerning daily operations and FAA oversight for the company. Taquan Air, it should be noted, continues to operate.
Similar questions could be extended to other commercial accidents last year, most notably that of PenAir Flight 3296. This accident, only the second Part 121 fatality in the entire U.S. for a passenger airliner in the past decade, was notable for the pilot-in-command’s (PIC) low experience in both the airport and aircraft (the Saab 2000). According to the National Transportation Safety Board’s initial report, the PIC had only 101 hours in the Saab (the second-in-command had only 147 hours). This is the only aircraft type PenAir operated in Dutch.
The low-time figures were in sharp contrast to the PenAir Operations Manual requirement for Dutch Harbor, which mandated that without a specific waiver from the chief pilot, 300 hours in aircraft type are required by the PIC for the airport. (This policy was long established prior to PenAir’s 2018 purchase in bankruptcy court by Ravn Air Group, whose airlines have a substantial history of accidents in Alaska.) After the October crash, which also resulted in four injuries, the PenAir chief pilot was replaced, with no public notice, and the company ceased flying the Saab 2000 into Dutch. It also lost its passenger agreement there with Alaska Airlines. It is worth noting that this was not the only difficulty the company had in 2019. In July, a passenger who was also a commercial pilot filed a formal complaint with the FAA, stating that when descending to Dillingham, that Saab 2000 lost an engine. Rather than make an immediate landing, the PIC elected to fly back to Anchorage on one engine. This engine failure followed an engine shutdown on another PenAir flight, operating as Alaska Airlines Flight 3298, in February after leaving King Salmon. In that case, the flight crew returned to the closer airport.
Two of the Part 135 accidents last year involved helicopters; 12 were in single-engine aircraft; one in a multi-engine and one in a twin turbine. One involved an aircraft on skis. Floatplanes were involved in six of the accidents, including Rust’s Air Service, which suffered loss-of-control on takeoff resulting in one fatality and five injuries. The NTSB noted loss-of-control as present in at least five other accidents last year.
Weather, long blamed for Alaska’s dismal air safety record, was not a factor in nearly all of 2019’s commercial operator crashes. Guardian Flight, which crashed in January, was flying a standard instrument approach into Kake when it went down in Frederick Sound. Winds in Dutch Harbor were likely a factor in the PenAir crash although, like the November crash involving the Security Aviation medevac to Seward which operated under visual flight rules in dark night and marginal conditions, the weather was forecasted. Further, in Dutch Harbor, the winds were constantly updated by a weather observer on the field. The decisions made while dispatching and flying in these conditions are likely part of their respective investigations.
There were two medevac accidents and one incident in 2019, including the triple fatality crashes of Guardian Flight in a Beechcraft King Air and Security Aviation, which was chartered by Medevac Alaska, in a Piper Navajo. Resolve Aviation, also chartered by Medevac Alaska, made a gear-up landing on a frozen lake near Koliganek on Dec. 24 after suffering a total engine loss; no one was hurt in that incident. A third medevac accident also in a King Air and operated by Aero Air, took place on Jan. 16 in Dutch Harbor. In that crash, which occurred immediately after takeoff at night in strong winds, there were no injuries or fatalities.
In all four of the recent medevac events the companies were operating single-pilot, even in the King Air which traditionally employs a co-pilot. They occurred in different areas of the state (Aleutians, Southeast, Southcentral and Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta) and were flown under both instrument and visual flight rules. That three separate medevac companies (Guardian Flight, LifeMed and Medevac Alaska) should crash in less than a year calls into question numerous issues regarding judgment, risk avoidance and decision-making. The Security Aviation crash in particular occurred after Guardian and LifeMed turned down the flight due to specific conditions related to weather and lack of daylight, both of which are problematic in Seward. Dedicated air ambulance operators were supposed to bring an enhanced degree of safety to Alaska; in 2019, this was certainly not the case.
In the midst of analyzing the 2019 statistics, there should be conversations about decision-making on the part of not only pilots, but also within the management structures of those who employ them. This is particularly true for the repeat offenders — those companies that have crashed again and again over the years. There must also be a long-overdue reckoning of FAA oversight, which remains perennially flummoxed in finding solutions to Alaska’s long-documented problems. And we must talk about the numbers that are most important: two flight paramedics and two flight nurses, five tourists from the cruise ship Royal Princess, one tourist departing a lodge vacation, one epidemiologist traveling for work and four pilots on the job. We also should not forget the Ravn Air passenger overlooking the left engine on PenAir Flight 3296; he was killed when that aircraft skidded off the runway.
There have now been 568 aviation fatalities in the state since 1990, 345 of them in commercial aircraft. Those seem like significant losses but sadly, when it comes to forcing substantial change, they still aren’t significant enough.
Colleen Mondor is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska.” Find her at chasingray.com or on Twitter @chasingray.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.