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Safety Spotlight: Flying in the last frontierSafety Spotlight: Flying in the last frontier

Bringing safety enhancements to Alaska aviation

Alaska flying is some of the most spectacular in the world. Denali at over 20,000 feet high, glaciers, wide-open tundra, large and rapid rivers, and coastal regions with dynamic tidal flows. All of it roamed by intriguing wildlife. It’s easy to be mesmerized by the spectacle of it all, and there’s no better way to see it than flying your own airplane, over your own route, on your own time. No wonder it’s on the bucket list for so many general aviation pilots.

This magnificent flying comes with elevated risk. The AOPA Air Safety Institute estimates Alaska’s fatal accident rate at 1.2 per 100,000 flight hours, some 30 percent higher than the nationwide GA fatal accident rate of 0.89 per 100,000 flight hours.

Concerned with a recent increase in fatal accidents with Alaska Part 135 operators and frustrated by slow action on NTSB recommendations, the NTSB hosted a summit in September at the University of Alaska Anchorage, dedicated to “charting a safer course” for Part 135 operations. FAA Regional Administrator Kerry Long kicked off the event, moderated by NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt who questioned a panel of some 20 experts from across the Alaskan aviation landscape. The evening before the NTSB summit, the Alaska Airmen Association hosted Sumwalt and me for a Part 91 “hangar talk” in their headquarters on Lake Hood, in Anchorage.

These events brought new attention to problems long plaguing pilots flying in the “last frontier.” Flying in Alaska can be more challenging than in the lower 48 and the supporting aviation infrastructure is less complete. General aviation’s vital role providing critical services to numerous small, remote villages—difficult to access by any other means—and carrying passengers on tight vacation timelines to challenging locations can create a cultural force in Alaska flying that adds risk. Dynamic, extreme weather; dramatic terrain; limited supporting infrastructure; and a cultural pressure to complete flights are a veritable cocktail for aviation risk. Solutions to improving Alaska’s safety record break down into three broad categories.

1. Increase IFR flying

Alaska pilots have an old quip: “The weather’s too bad to fly IFR, so we’ll go VFR.” Driving down the accident rate in Alaska begins with rendering this witticism obsolete. Expanding IFR will require better, more complete ADS-B coverage as well as weather reporting, broader communications for reliable radio operation, an expansion of GPS-based terminal transition routes (T-routes), and lower minimum en route altitudes that acknowledge modern navigation tools.

2. Enhance the VFR flying experience

Alaska pilots fly a lot of VFR and likely always will. Expansion of weather cameras, often the only source of timely weather information for pilots, to more airports and in more mountain passes is needed. More AWOS systems are needed. Broader ADS-B coverage will help pilots better assess weather and avoid traffic. It seems counter-intuitive for such a sparsely populated region, but midair collisions are a consistent risk because of terrain and tourist sites that can channel traffic into confined areas.

Flight service stations, vital to Alaska flying, need to be maintained and in some cases upgraded. Much of the machine-to-machine data transfer that provides us so much convenience and situational awareness doesn’t exist in Alaska because of the limited infrastructure. Flight service stations are often exclusive sources for collecting and disseminating vital weather and TFR information, coordinating flight activity, and providing traffic advisories.

3. Update policies and procedures

Some FAA policies established decades ago need review. Alaskan pilots face restrictions that don’t exist elsewhere, limiting or adding requirements to certain GPS usage. Policies requiring full-route communication coverage dictate higher-than-necessary minimum en route altitudes, which force pilots to make tough choices to either fly above the MEA and into icing conditions, or stay lower and “scud run” in mountainous terrain. Procedures that allow for known communications gaps of relatively short duration would be a far safer approach. A fresh look at these and other dated policies will improve safety.

AOPA has been working with the FAA and other groups, such as the Alaska Airmen Association, to address these issues. There’s been progress, but not enough and too slow. An industry/government entity must form, collaborate with interested parties, set priorities, advocate for action, and track progress. Until that happens, the NTSB’s summit and all of the collateral talk will remain just that.

Go fly in Alaska. When you do, bring your very best airmanship.

Email [email protected]

Richard McSpadden

Executive Director of AOPA Air Safety Institute
Richard McSpadden lead’s AOPA’s ASI, committed to reducing General Aviation mishaps by providing free educational resources and supporting initiatives that improve General Aviation safety and grow the pilot population.

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