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"Alaska officials target bush pilots' culture to reduce crashes"

Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Alaska officials target bush pilots' culture to reduce crashes
By Matt Volz
The Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Joe Darminio loves nothing better that landing his
plane on a 200-foot sandbar deep in Alaska's wilderness, where the
twisted hemlocks and the occasional brown bear are the only company to
be found.

Darminio, like the image of Alaska's bush pilots, is part Grizzly Adams,
part Charles Lindbergh. Keeping up with that image has led to a few
pilots taking unnecessary risks. There's even a name for it: bush pilot

"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.

Such programs 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.

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

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.

A desire for more 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, 53 were recorded.

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 pilot, sees bush pilot syndrome as a problem with just a
few fliers, 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," 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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