Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Alaska is home to 2% of the U.S. population. It’s home to .2% of the U.S. population. The article has been updated to reflect the change.
Despite a spate of high-profile airplane wrecks, the number of fatal crashes in Alaska this year was fairly in line with state averages, according to National Transportation Safety Board data. But Alaska’s average is a lot different from normal in the U.S.
“The accident rate is higher than in Alaska for the rest of the country,” said Tom George, Alaska Regional Manager for Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a national nonprofit that advocates for aviation.
Data backs that assessment up.
The NTSB has preliminary reports for 10 fatal wrecks for the 2019 calendar year, and an Oct. 17, which crash in Unalaska, which does not yet have a report, brings that total to 11. That’s two more than nine last year, three more than eight in 2017, one fewer than 12 in 2016 and matches the total from 2015.
In 2016, the most recent year NTSB lists on its website, there were 221 total fatal accidents in the nation, 12 were in Alaska. That means Alaska, which is home to about .2% of the U.S. population, was the site 5.4% of its fatal airplane wrecks.
Making sense of the numbers
Previous analysis by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation found there is a rate of 13.59 accidents per 100,000 flight hours in Alaska between 2004-2008 compared to a 5.85 national rate. Flying is also much more common in Alaska, according to the FAA. There were 5 million total plane boardings in Alaska in 2018, according to the FAA, That’s 6.8 times the state’s population. The national average is 2.6 times the U.S. population.
George said there’s a lot of conditions that explain the statistics.
Those include few federally funded airports, which means more landings and takeoffs occur in harbors or in relatively rugged terrain; a lack of ground-based radio receivers to help pilots keep track of other aircraft via automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), which helps pilots keep track of other aircraft and prevent mid-air collisions like the one that occurred May 13 near Ketchikan; the sheer size of the state; and treacherous weather, which may be most impactful in Southeast Alaska. Four fatal wrecks occurred in Southeast Alaska in 2019, one near Kake, two near Ketchikan and one near Metlakatla.
“If I had to point to one thing, I would say the weather is the biggest contributing factor and that’s true back as far as I can remember,” said Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Service President Jerry Kiffer, who has been in a leadership position with the organization that tends to aircraft wrecks and other maladies for more than 30 years.
Preliminary accident reports do not identify causes of wrecks, so exactly why the reported fatal wrecks occurred hasn’t officially been determined, but it seems weather was likely a factor in some of this year’s fatal events. That includes a May 20 wreck that claimed two lives after a de Havilland Beaver floatplane “nosed over” while attempting to land in Metlakatla Harbor, according to the NTSB.
Kiffer said wind is a regular concern in that area.
“That Beaver was not the first one to go upside down in that water,” Kiffer said.
While Southeast Alaska has been the site of four fatal wrecks this year, the loss of life wasn’t limited to the panhandle, according to the NTSB.
The day after the Metlakatla wreck, another plane nosed over during a water landing in Cascade Bay near Whittier. Nine days later, an airplane crashed, killing its pilot, shortly after taking off near Wasilla. Earlier this month, a plane crash in Unalaska became this year’s westernmost fatal wreck, according to NTSB’s reports.
“I think we’ve had fatal accidents in all parts of the state,” George said.
George said no one region of the state seems to be inherently more at-risk than another.
A pilot familiar with Southeast Alaska may find the North Slope challenging, while someone used to flying near the Aleutian Islands could be flummoxed by the air traffic near Anchorage.
“The area that you’re least familiar with is the place you think is most dangerous to fly,” George said.
Could Alaska make another safety leap?
NTSB numbers show Alaska was once an even more dangerous place to fly but drastically improved beginning in the late ’90s.
Total aircraft wrecks were roughly halved between 1990 when there were 193 and 2004 when there were 101. That matched a sizable reduction in fatal wrecks, too. There were 25 in 1990 and 10 in 2004.
The improvements coincided with a handful of Federal Aviation Administration efforts in the state.
Those included the Capstone Project, which provided ADS-B equipment for aircraft and support ground infrastructure; funding the Medallion Foundation, which is designed to raise pilot awareness, beginning in 2002; and the Alaska Weather Camera Program, which started in 1999 and installed 230 weather cameras around the state so pilots could see real-time weather conditions without flying to a site.
A FAA flying camera showed there was reduced visibility in all directions June 28 at the time of a fatal wreck in Moose Pass, according to an NTSB preliminary report.
“All those things collectively contributed to the improvement in safety we saw come down massively in the ‘90s,” George said.
Both he and Kiffer were unsure of what practical actions could be taken to generate a similar leap forward in safety.
“We’re constantly scratching our heads and trying to figure it out,” George said.
He said more ground stations to improve the usefulness of ADS-B would likely help. A lot of Interior Alaska is not covered by the service that broadcasts flight and traffic information, and Kiffer said many parts of Southeast are outside its radio range too.
It’s also not required in most of the state, George said. That means there’s not a lot of incentive for plane owners to purchase the expensive equipment.
Kiffer said if both planes involved in the May 13 mid-air collision had been equipped with working ADS-B equipment, that crash would likely have been avoided.
“Essentially, it kind of comes back to infrastructure,” George said.
Kiffer said meaningful reduction of fatal crashes in Southeast Alaska would likely require changes in how flightseeing works. Of the 10 fatal wrecks with NTSB reports, three involved a flightseeing business. The mid-air collision in Ketchikan involved two such businesses and— Taquan Air and Mountain Air Service — according to the NTSB. Taquan Air was also the operator in the Metlakatla wreck a week later.
Taquan Air did not return multiple calls seeking comment. Ward Air declined to comment.
The role of instruments
Kiffer said as long as flightseeing tours continue to operate as they currently do, it’s a mathematics certainty there will be plane crashes.
“I think we can talk all we want about flight safety and medallion programs and all of that, but if you’re going to continue to operate a VFR (visual flight rules) in the conditions that they’re operating in, you’re going to crash the airplanes,” Kiffer said.
He said more usage of instrument flight rules could possibly increase safety.
Visual flight rules are a set of standards made by the FAA for flying when the responsibility for avoiding other aircraft falls on the pilot. They include rules about cloud coverage and visibility.
Instrument flight rules are FAA standards that apply to aircraft flying in conditions in which a pilot will be guided by instruments in the cockpit.
It means flights are less likely to be grounded by inclement weather, but it requires additional training. Also, instrument flight rules often don’t apply to planned flightseeing tours or personal flights.
Of the four fatal wrecks in Southeast this year, only one aircraft had an IFR flight plan, according to NTSB preliminary reports.
However, flying in the clouds guided by instruments would defeat the purpose of a flightseeing tour.
So, in light of uniquely Alaska conditions and a large number of flights, Kiffer isn’t optimistic much will change.
“I don’t see any other way around it,” Kiffer said. “It’s just going to happen.”
• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.: