Despite crashes, Alaska aviation safer than ever

Posted: Monday, August 30, 2010

For Alaska aviation, 2010 has been a tragic year -- 17 people have died since early June, including former Sen. Ted Stevens-- and the media headlines certainly aren't helping.

In Anchorage, a Cessna 206 clipped a building June 1 and then slammed into an unoccupied car dealership, injuring four and killing a 4-year-old child.

A commercial floatplane crashed north of Ward Cove July 23, killing pilot Josh Murdock.

Just days before the annual Arctic Thunder air show at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, a C-17 cargo plane crashed during a training exercise July 28, killing the four service members on board.

Then, Sen. Stevens, Alaska's greatest congressional champion, died along with four others as a GCI-owned de Havilland Otter carrying Stevens and eight other people went down in the mountains outside Dillingham.

Since the death of Sen. Stevens, there have been even more crashes. In the latest of such headlines, a floatplane carrying three National Park Service employees in Southwest Alaska vanished. As of this writing, the plane, along with its passengers and pilot, was still missing.

But despite all of this sobering news, experts and industry officials say Alaska aviation is getting safer, despite a barrage of national and local headlines that would have readers thinking otherwise.

The statistics reinforce this.

Joy Journeay, executive director of the Alaska Air Carriers Association, said accidents in Southwest Alaska dropped 47 percent in the last five years, with accidents in the Southeast region down 37 percent.

Over the last four years, fatal accidents overall have tended to drop, with a small increase of two accidents (from five to seven) in fiscal year 2010, according to statistics provided by the Federal Aviation Administration. There were 12 fatal accidents in fiscal 2007.

Mike Stedman, a pilot and vice president of operations of Wings Airways, an air carrier that specializes in flight-seeing tours, said he remembers a time when Bush pilots flew with nothing but a compass and their wits.

"It's gotten safer, no doubt about it," he said. "The Bush pilot mentality has gone away for the most part."

Journeay credits three major innovations for making aviation in Alaska safer.

At the top of her list is a technology that allows pilots to share their exact location with other pilots and an air carrier's headquarters with a transponder that broadcasts their location, in addition to the ability to receive data on nearby weather and terrain.

Like almost every effort to improve safety in Alaska, Stevens' efforts in Congress to make Alaska the primary testing ground for this technology had much to do with its widespread application here.

When heavy fog obscures a pilot's view in a narrow mountain pass, this technology, referred to as automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast, or ADS-B, becomes a lifeline.

"Now, two screens tell me everything I need to know and then some," Stedman said.

Widespread deployment of ADS-B technology in Alaska came as a result of a joint industry and FAA research and development project. The Capstone Project, which ran from 1999 to 2006 and put Alaska aviation on the cutting edge of safety, led the FAA to provide ADS-B equipment for aircraft and ground infrastructure to support that equipment.

From his office at the headquarters of Hageland Aviation near Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, Patrick Thurston can glance at his computer screen and see the exact location of all the carrier's planes that are equipped with ADS-B. Only one of the fleet of 50 planes does not have the technology.

As the company's director of operations, he is largely responsible for the company's safety efforts.

Thurston's computer screen displays a map, with each of the company's planes appearing as a small peg.

Thurston said there was one instance in which the technology aided in a rescue effort.

"A year-and-a-half ago, when one of our pilots experienced an engine failure I had been sitting at home, this was after hours. So I cranked it up when I heard about this engine failure. In about a minute-and-a-half, I could see the airplane on the screen here," he said.

Thurston watched the plane land on a pond near Bethel.

"There was no debate about where he was," he said. "We knew exactly, geographically, where this guy was out there."

He said people were mobilized within minutes to rescue the downed pilot, and they were successful.

Beyond the widespread proliferation of ADS-B, Journeay said a series of cameras accessible on the Internet that show weather conditions in various places across Alaska have contributed to increased aviation safety.

By looking at the live video streams provided on the FAA's weather camera website (http://akweathercams.faa.gov/index.php), pilots can better decide whether a trip is safe enough to make in current conditions, or if they should wait until the weather clears.

More than 100 cameras are installed in various locations around Alaska, with 28 more on the way this year, Journeay said.

The cameras are pricey. According to the FAA, the cameras generally cost nearly $40,000 if the necessary infrastructure already exists at the site.

For those remote sites that are often more in need of these cameras, installation can cost between $300,000 and $500,000 where remote power systems and all of the supporting infrastructure must be constructed.

And another innovation Journeay listed was a changed culture in Alaska regarding aviation safety. Getting away from the traditional concept of the Alaska Bush pilot, an archetype written into the very fabric of Alaska's mythology, has been a major boon to safety, she said. Pilots are no longer encouraged to recklessly fly through unsafe conditions, she said.

"Awareness of the need for safety has, in the last decade, become paramount for carriers in the state," she said.

Much of this awareness, Journeay said, came as the result of an effort begun after the formation of the Medallion Foundation in 2001, which offers voluntary training programs and rewards carriers who are willing to make safety a priority.

If a carrier can accumulate five "stars" within the foundation's programs, which involves safety audits, classroom training and other methods of ensuring safe airplane operation, that carrier becomes eligible to win a Medallion Shield, which signifies that the carrier operates safely.

Beyond these existing innovations, work continues on the state's airports to make them safer. FAA administrator Randy Babbitt appeared with Sen. Mark Begich Aug. 24 to speak with reporters about a series of federal grants that will fund airport improvement projects.

At $30 million, the biggest of these grants will fuel an expansion of the runway safety area at the Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport. A runway's safety area is the pavement on either side of the runway that allows pilots to land safely even if they over- or undershoot a landing. With this grant, the safety areas will be brought up to FAA standards.

The second-largest grant, at $20.5 million, will fuel a continuation of the construction of a replacement airport in Chefornak. According to a release from Alaska's congressional delegation, the current airport is not up to FAA standards and cannot be reconstructed where it currently stands due to topographical restrictions.

Speaking at a podium positioned in front of the first airplane certified to be fitted with ADS-B technology, a Cessna 180 built in 1954, Babbitt spoke on the importance of tailoring safety solutions in Alaska to the unique landscape here.

"What somebody needs to fly from here to Bethel is not the same as what somebody needs to fly from Palm Beach, Florida, to Key West," he said.

Both Begich and Babbitt spoke about recent meetings with industry players, pilots and others in aviation, and how important it was to remind them that all of the technological innovations in the world can't fully protect a pilot who isn't cognizant of the dangers he or she might face in Alaska.

Begich finished the presentation by reminding reporters that although pilots here may seem to be involved in more crashes than other states, there are also more pilots active in the state; he said there are six times more pilots in Alaska per capita than in the rest of the country.

Similarly, he said there are 16 times more airplanes per capita than there are throughout the nation.

Sean Manget can be reached at sean.manget.@alaskajournal.com.



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