New study pinpoints deadliest type of Alaska plane accidents

Posted: Monday, November 13, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A newly released aviation study singles out a specific kind of aircraft accident that kills more Alaska travelers than any other, and it gives safety officials the most detailed focus yet about how to reduce fatalities.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said most people die when pilots flying without navigation instruments find themselves moving from good weather into bad and end up crashing. It's called ''controlled flight into terrain.''

The institute said those kinds of accidents comprise less than 20 percent of all types of aircraft accidents, but produced nearly 60 percent of Alaska's aviation fatalities.

The study was published in this month's issue of Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine. The institute's scientists have been studying work-related fatalities in Alaska for the past decade.

''We now know that if we put a concerted effort on this aspect of aviation fatalities, we can have a real impact on deaths in Alaska,'' said Dr. George Conway, of the occupational safety and health team.

''With this level of focus, we can work with the (aviation) industry in a more deliberative fashion.''

Raw numbers always have ranked Alaska one of the most dangerous places to fly in the United States -- despite the steady decline in aviation accidents and deaths over the past few years.

The pilot fatality rate in Alaska is five times the national average.

For people in Alaska who must fly as an important part of their jobs -- to and from work sites, for example -- the fatality rate is 86 times the national occupational fatality rate.

The health and safety institute study will contribute to a federally funded effort begun this year between the institute, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Weather Service to cut Alaska aviation crashes and deaths in half by 2009.

The significance of this study is its focus.

The safety analysts looked at every Alaska aircraft accident from 1991 to 1998, specifically air commuter or air taxi accidents.

The accidents were categorized as takeoff or landing accidents, 51 percent; loss of control or an emergency, 17 percent; controlled flight into terrain, 17 percent, and taxiing or standing accidents, 5 percent.

Details revealed that of the 140 deaths in all these crashes, 82 happened during controlled flight into terrain, or what air-safety experts call ''CFIT.''

The most dangerous CFIT situation occurred when pilots flew from good weather into bad, where navigation instruments would be required. The study showed that 52 of the 82 fatalities occurred in those crashes.

A recent example is a crash that killed a pilot and two passengers and seriously injured another on the Alaska Peninsula on Aug. 23.

A Cessna 180 operated by a fishing lodge was flying guests back from a fishing spot.

According to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board, the pilot, flying under Visual Flight Rules, entered a mountain pass. Heavy clouds closed in behind.

A second airplane following the Cessna turned back before entering the pass. But, according to the NTSB report, the pilot of the first plane radioed the pilot of the second plane that he was ''kind of committed now.''

Rescuers found the airplane about 34 miles south of Pilot Point in an area of steep rocks at the foot of a glacier, about 150 feet below the summit of the pass.

The state's commercial air carrier industry, which has often been skeptical of government oversight, praised this latest study.

''I think this is going to help the industry,'' said John Eckels, president of the Alaska Air Carriers Association, representing most of the state's commercial operations.

''This is specific, and the more we know about what causes accidents, the better focused we can be,'' he told the Anchorage Daily News.

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