ANCHORAGE Freedom to Joe Darminio is landing on a 200-foot sandbar as easily as a paved runway, deep in Alaska's wilderness where the twisted hemlocks and the occasional brown bear are the only company to be found.
The 15-year bush pilot flies fishermen, hunters and hikers to the places in the last frontier that can't be reached in a car, to patches of tundra where you can holler for days and not come within earshot of another soul.
He says being the bridge between civilization and the wild is his religion.
''I fly the plane. Nobody else is flying the plane,'' Darminio said. ''Every decision, from the minute I take off to the minute I land, is mine.''
For decades, that spirit has drawn men and women to become bush pilots, an occupation that ranks among the most dangerous in Alaska's unforgiving terrain and constantly changing weather.
The image of the Alaska bush pilot is part Grizzly Adams, part Charles Lindbergh. Keeping up with that image has led a few pilots to take unnecessary risks. There's even a name for it: bush pilot syndrome.
It's a term familiar to all Alaska pilots and regulators. To Darminio, it's a pilot who, because of machismo or bravado, makes a flight more dangerous than it needs to be, endangering his passengers.
''There is a mystique about Alaska, and some people feel they have to live up to certain legends,'' said Jerry Dennis, executive director of the Medallion Foundation, which runs aviation safety programs for Alaska pilots and air carriers.
Programs like the Medallion Foundation's aim to reduce the number of air accidents by changing the culture of the bush pilots. It's part of the goal of the Federal Aviation Administration to reduce the number of air accidents in Alaska 20 percent by 2008.
Several years ago, the federal government began looking at ways to reduce Alaska crashes. Back in 1980, the National Transportation Safety Board wrote that there were three major factors to the high number of accidents: Inadequate airport facilities, insufficient ground navigation and bush pilot syndrome.
John Duncan, the FAA's flight standards division director for Alaska, said programs that focus on pilot training, technology upgrades in the cockpit and the tower, as well as passenger education programs, all contribute to lowering the number of crashes.
The biggest obstacle has been breaking bush pilot syndrome, as well as reaching the large number of the state's recreational flyers, who may not be as up-to-date on their flying when they set off on weekend adventures in the state, he said.
''They're more of a challenge,'' Duncan said. ''There are a lot of folks in Alaska who have their planes for very specific purposes. They want to go fishing in the spring, they want to go hunting in the fall, and that's all they use them for.''
Alaskans rely on air travel far more than the rest of the United States. There are 14,230 miles of road in a state that covers 656,425 square miles, making the air a vital means of traveling and transporting goods that far-flung residents depend on to survive the harsh winters.
One out of every 59 Alaskans is a pilot and there are more than 290 commercial air carriers in the state.
This disproportionate reliance on air travel has resulted in a similarly disproportionate number of crashes. From 1990 to 1999, Alaska aviation accidents made up 39 percent of the nation's total air crashes, 24 percent of its fatal crashes and 21 percent of total air fatalities, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety. Those numbers spurred the creation of the safety programs.
Tucked away in a small Anchorage strip mall storefront, pilots practice flying through engine failures and extreme weather on four flight simulators. That simulator time, otherwise prohibitively pricey, is free thanks to federal grants and run in tandem with the Medallion Foundation's programs.
Medallion's safety and risk assessment programs are for both independent pilots and air carriers. The carriers' program is a rigorous course that requires competency be shown in five key safety areas before earning a shield. More than 40 carriers are enrolled; just two have gotten the shield.
The private pilots' program is new and an adaptation of the carriers' program. So far, more than 400 pilots have signed on, with word of mouth its main form of advertisement.
Rusty Miller, a co-pilot for Frontier Flying Service, has been training on the simulators in preparation to upgrade to the pilot's seat. He said he's a staunch supporter of the program and has seen much interest among his co-workers and other pilots.
''I know the other element exists, but (there are) a lot of people that I know of that are wanting to become more professional,'' Miller said.
That professionalism may be playing a role in the lower number crashes already recorded this year. The FAA's goal this year is for fewer than 125 crashes in Alaska. Through July, there were 53 recorded crashes.
For the first six months of this year, eight air fatalities have been recorded in Alaska, slightly above the five-year average, according to FAA statistics.
Jim LaBelle, regional director for the NTSB's Alaska region, says he's noticed a change in the bush pilot culture over the years, but would not attribute the reduction to the new safety programs. Because of the difficulty of tracking flight hours in Alaska, there could be a reduction in the amount of times pilots are spending in the air and regulators wouldn't know.
''We need to be somewhat cautious as we look at these numbers, there may be other reasons attributable to these declines,'' he said.
Darminio, the bush pilot, said he believes the goal of reducing Alaska crashes 20 percent is attainable, but it's got to be done through better communication between pilots.
Darminio sees bush pilot syndrome as a problem with just a few pilots, and shouldn't be a black mark on the industry.
''Everybody has a taxicab story. But you get into the next one and you're fine. You've got them in all walks of life,'' Darminio said. ''To single out us pilots in Alaska and say we're cowboys and the FAA needs to single us out, it's not true.''
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