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"FAA tries to boost air safety in Alaska"



Sunday, July 8, 2001

FAA tries to boost air safety in Alaska
Inexperienced pilots, poor weather and terrain create difficult conditions
By Don Phillips
THE WASHINGTON (DC) POST


JUNEAU, Alaska -- On May 30, 1998, a single-engine Cessna 172 was descending
for a landing down the scenic Gastineau Channel just as a sightseeing
helicopter crossed the channel at the same altitude. The collision killed
both occupants of the small plane.

Great leaps forward in aviation safety often occur after crashes. It's
called "tombstone regulation." Usually the crash involves an airliner with
multiple deaths. Small plane crashes get less attention.

But the 1998 crash here was different. One of the casualties was Dan
Trusdale, an official of the Federal Aviation Administration who was flying
into Juneau to promote a fledgling FAA-sponsored satellite navigation system
called Project Capstone.

"Our literature was floating on the water," said Gary Childers, an FAA
official with Project Capstone who knew Trusdale well.

To understand the urgent need to improve aviation safety in Alaska, one need
only look at the statistics: On average, 11 of every 100 pilots will die in
a crash during a 30-year flying career, and there is an aviation fatality
every nine days.

In the Lower 48 states, interest in aviation safety peaks after each fatal
crash of a commercial airliner. But in Alaska, where thousands of people
live isolated from any road, the small plane is commercial aviation.

If there were a fatal commercial aviation crash every nine days in the Lower
48, people would be up in arms about safety. In a way, that's exactly how
Alaskans feel.

The Trusdale crash added to the determination of local FAA officials to
improve aviation safety and in particular to bring Project Capstone to
Juneau, where a thick mix of small planes, Alaska Airlines jets, sightseeing
helicopters, commuter planes and float planes fly without radar coverage
below 10,000 feet because of the mountainous terrain.

"It's sort of sad testimony that we can't drag this out of the closet. Let's
get going," Childers said, referring to what Alaskans see as the glacial
pace of FAA decision-making in Washington to bring Capstone to Juneau.

Even longtime FAA veterans who come to Alaska seem to catch the sense of
frustration that not enough is being done soon enough to stop the state's
aviation carnage.

"Our job is to harvest the safety technology as soon as we can," said
Patrick Poe, regional FAA administrator for Alaska. Poe arrived from a post
in Brussels in 1998 and said he is fast becoming a "native Alaskan."

Project Capstone, already being used in the vast Yukon-Kuskokwim delta of
western Alaska, gives pilots satellite guidance capability and a video
screen with moving terrain maps, weather maps, messaging capabilities
similar to e-mail and other information. For the first time, the system
allows air traffic controllers to see aircraft in areas with no radar
coverage.

"It's a quality-of-life issue," said John Hallinan, who heads Project
Capstone. "There's no reason the people here can't get on an airplane with
the same kind of confidence as a person getting on a plane in Kansas."

Many things make for unsafe flying in Alaska, including poor weather, poor
radar coverage, rugged terrain and a large pool of young, inexperienced
pilots. Capstone cannot solve all of the problems because an element of
human judgment becomes critical here, where many pressures encourage pilots
to fly even when conditions are too dangerous.

"Corporate management of air taxis appears to be valuing the bottom line
more than safety," said Thomas Wardleigh, chairman of the Alaskan Aviation
Safety Council. He added that almost two decades of programs and pressures
to improve the risk-taking nature of some managers and pilots have made "not
a dime's worth of difference."

Wardleigh said some Alaska operators are responsible and safe, but numerous
others will push pilots beyond their abilities. Studies and anonymous pilot
surveys confirm Wardleigh's opinion.

A survey of 100 pilots in the fall 2000 Northern Pilot magazine found that
82 had experienced or had firsthand knowledge of management pressure to fly
in conditions they considered unsafe. Seventy-three percent said pressure
from passengers can lead to unsafe flying.

Wardleigh said pilots can pressure themselves to fly because they know
they're the only lifeline to remote villages. If they don't fly, someone may
die awaiting hospital care. Or schoolchildren won't get to school. Or the
village will run short of supplies.

Despite the danger, having "Alaska" on a resume wins respect around the
hangar. Test pilots generally are considered No. 1 in this unofficial
hierarchy, followed by carrier fighter pilots, all other fighter pilots and
Alaska pilots.

"A lot of us get killed, but the rest of us are damned good," said Skip
Nelson, vice president and chief operating officer of Yute Air in Anchorage.

Nelson said part of the problem is that few young pilots stay in Alaska more
than a year. The ones who do stay usually are running from something or
someone, Nelson said, making Alaska sort of "an open-air witness relocation
program."

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