How will Canadian weapons regulations affect Alaska pilots?

Posted: Monday, April 02, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Anchorage businessman Ron Sheardown was flying over uninhabited wilderness northwest of McGrath late one frigid afternoon a year ago February when the engine of his Piper J-4 airplane suddenly sputtered and died.

The longtime bush pilot glided to a frozen lake and landed without a problem. He set off his emergency locator beacon. The sun was setting, with temperatures falling toward 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Rescue might take hours -- or even days. What next?

For Sheardown, with decades of experience flying remote stretches of the Arctic, the immediate solution was as matter-of-fact as checking into a motel.

He pulled out the survival gear he always stows in his aircraft, a requirement written into Alaska law for 50 years. He then set up a lean-to, prepared dinner and snuggled into a warm sleeping bag to await help. It came the next day.

''I was comfortable,'' he said. ''Nothing extravagant, but I was prepared for it.''

Sheardown drew on the same gear last spring when his Antonov biplane punched through thin ice on the frozen Arctic Ocean at the North Pole. The plane ultimately sank and was lost, but Sheardown and four other people spent a relatively easy night at the top of the world.

''We set up a camp and built a snowhouse,'' Sheardown said. ''We called it the North Pole Hilton because we were extremely well prepared.''

In both instances, Sheardown was acting out provisions of a 1949 Alaska law little known outside aviation circles. All planes flying in Alaska with 15 or fewer passengers must carry a weapon and ammunition, two weeks of food, mosquito head nets and items from nine other categories of survival gear.

On the mandated list for summer travel are one ax or hatchet, a first-aid kit, a gill net with assorted fishing tackle, two boxes of matches and at least two signaling devices.

In winter, the gear must also include a pair of snowshoes, a sleeping bag and ''one wool blanket for each occupant over four.''

No one enforces the law, so it's not clear how often Alaska pilots skimp on required items. But the Federal Aviation Administration, the Alaska Airmen's Association, flight schools, experienced pilots and survival experts all emphasize the principles in instructions to pilots.

''I think most pilots have a form of survival gear,'' said Anne Graham, manager of the FAA's regional safety program. ''It wouldn't make sense not to.''

''Today search and rescue is so good that there's very few people who spend more than a day out,'' Sheardown added. ''But there are circumstances where you might have to wait longer. ... You could die of exposure very easily if you weren't properly equipped.''

The law recently has come under scrutiny by the Alaska Legislature because Canadian gun regulations tightened on Jan. 1. Every person entering Canada with a weapon must first register it and pay a fee. That meant fully equipped Alaska pilots traversing the international border would be breaking Canadian law unless they diverted to a customs office first.

''It's illegal to take off without a gun here, and it's illegal to land (with one) there,'' John Manly, a staffer for Rep. John Harris, R-Valdez.

Harris sponsored a bill that would allow Alaska pilots to leave their weapons behind when traveling through Canada on an active, filed flight plan. HB 127 unanimously passed in the House last week and was forwarded to the Senate Transportation Committee.

The bill also removes the requirement for a gill net, changes ''two small boxes of matches'' to ''fire starter'' and adds the words ''or equivalent'' to the requirement that pilots carry wool blankets.

Manly said House members wanted to modernize the law. ''John thought the requirement to have a small gill net was outdated,'' he said. ''But we left the rest of the fishing gear.''

Canadian officials appear to be still working out how the law applies to Alaska pilots, Graham said.

Last week, Canadian aviation officials told her that Alaska pilots who make brief landings to refuel while traveling to the Lower 48 should notify Canadian customs in advance as usual and don't actually need to register their weapons under the new law.

But any pilot who remains overnight must comply, Graham said.

Graham said it remains unclear what would happen if a pilot were forced to make an unplanned stop for the night. ''What if you have a problem and can't go on?'' she said.

Canadian Consul Robert Poetschke in Seattle suggested that Alaska pilots who take guns into Canadian airspace obtain necessary forms first so they're prepared to register as soon as possible after they land.

''There is, to my knowledge, no exceptions made for Alaskan pilots, despite this anomalous situation,'' Poetschke said.

Even if Alaska law is revised to let pilots traverse Canada without a weapon, several pilots advise against it. Flying over wilderness requires a ''proper survival gun'' -- a shotgun that can be loaded with slugs or buckshot for protection or bird shot to gather small game for food, Sheardown said. ''I would not stop carrying a gun.''

Graham, a pilot, always carries a backpack with her survival gear and weapon, even when she's a passenger in someone else's plane. When she flew a mail route out of Cordova, she packed a pistol-grip 12-gauge shotgun for bear protection, especially along one stretch near Cape Suckling where she once counted 27 black bears foraging for wild strawberries.

''It probably would have broken my arm if I'd fired it, but I always carried one,'' she said.

''I certainly would not like to have done a forced landing and been down there among the bears and strawberries'' without a gun.

Several survival experts said that stowing gear and practicing its use might not even be enough.

''You better have your stuff on you,'' said Shane Langland, president of Eagle Enterprises, which packs and sells survival kits of all sorts. ''You need to think about what you're going to do if that nice little survival kit that you've got in the tail of the airplane has either sank or burned.''

When a Cessna 206 airplane crashed in 1998 on a snowfield at 10,500 feet on Mount Torbert, in the Tordrillo Mountains across Cook Inlet from Anchorage, the six people aboard suffered only minor injuries.

But the plane had settled in deep snow, forcing the survivors to huddle for eight hours

inside the cabin. The temperature dropped to about 30 degrees before arrival of pararescuers from the Alaska Air National Guard.

''Their survival gear was in the back of the plane, and they couldn't move to get it,'' said Chief Master Sgt. Garth Lenz, of the 210th Rescue Squadron. ''Fortunately, the helicopter got there in time.

The lesson is a stark one, Lenz said. ''If you're in a real crash, you're lucky to get out of the plane with what you have on your body.''

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