Tuesday, August 17, 2010
The recent aircraft accident that claimed the life of former Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens renewed national interest in aviation in Alaska and reminded Alaskan pilots of the perils of flying in this Great Land. The crash of the Stevens' Otter was not an uncommon event in Alaska. In fact, aircraft accidents here are fairly routine, almost like automobile accidents in any other state. Most of the accidents are fender-benders, some do serious damage to the aircraft, and a few cause death. Alaska has approximately 200 villages that are located off the road system, and Alaskans use airplanes much as Outsiders use taxis and four-wheel drive outfits. Most accidents happen in the summer months when more pilots are flying. There have been 21 airplane crashes in Alaska in 2010 with 17 of those crashes happening since June 1. At the time the Stevens' aircraft was plowing into the side of a mountain, another group of five airplane accident survivors was waiting for rescue on the Knik Glacier where weather conditions prevented rescue for several days. A Pave Hawk helicopter landed several miles down the glacier from the wreck and left four National Air Guard rescuers who hiked for twenty-one hours up the glacier before reaching the crash site. The Pave Hawk was then diverted to the Stevens accident, and a Black Hawk helicopter traveling from Fairbanks was sent to the Knik Glacier. While trying to land on the glacier, the Black Hawk rolled over and crashed, leaving additional people on the glacier to be rescued. A few days after the Stevens' accident, two more people were killed when their airplane flew into a mountain. Being a member of the flying community of Alaska, I am more than a little interested in the recent mishaps. There are numerous reasons for aircraft accidents, just like there are for automobile accidents. Most reasons fall into the category called "pilot error" while some are caused by the weather and a very few are caused by aircraft malfunction. Some conditions coming under pilot error are: lack of experience, making a wrong turn (such as going up the wrong canyon and not having room to turn the aircraft around), flying too low for the terrain, flying too fast to land safely, flying in weather conditions not suitable for flying, etc, My husband has been piloting small airplanes for nearly forty years and has been an Alaskan bush pilot for more than thirty-five of those years. He has about 5,000 hours of flying time compared to the 28,000 flying hours of the pilot of the Stevens' aircraft. He has already had his share of mishaps and near-death experiences, losing one aircraft completely. He has also gone on many search and rescue missions for missing aircraft. The accident that affected him most was probably the one where he found a friend whose airplane had augured into the ground while searching for wolves. My husband flies aircraft on wheels, floats and skis. When I first started flying with him, I spent whole trips searching the ground for safe places to land. Now I am more relaxed and at peace with the experience. My husband has postponed many fishing and hunting trips due to bad weather. Last winter his gear sat in a stack by the garage door for more than two months waiting for the weather to break. One day he actually made it across Cook Inlet before turning around due to a strong headwind. Return trips home are often delayed because of bad weather. In fact, as I drafted this post, I was sitting in a warm and cozy cabin in a remote part of Alaska waiting for the rain to stop and the skies to clear enough for us to return home. Alaskan aviation can be summed up as follows: There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots - but there are no old, bold pilots. Alaskan pilots have an especially difficult time with weather because conditions change quickly over the immense amount of country and single engine aircraft travel approximately 100-125 miles per hour. Pilots here must be aware of weather conditions all around the route they plan to travel. They must also maintain their aircraft in top condition as well as know their own personal capabilities. Taking proper precautions, aviation in Alaska is as safe as driving down a freeway in many other states.