Alaska commuter pilots fly into airports that can consist of a gravel strip, and not much else.
Asked by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to estimate the percentage of community landing strips her company uses that don’t have the regular set of aviation services, like weather and communications, Hageland Aviation Services Chief Pilot Erin Witt responded that it was about 25 percent.
“So just to clarify”, queried Sean Williams with the NTSB technical team, “a pilot on the ground at one of those airports would have no way to talk to his company, flight service, any online weather services. None of that would be available to him at 25 percent of the airports?”
“So sorry," Erin Witt corrected. “My 25 to 30 percent number, I was speaking infrastructure, not about our pilot cellphones that we offer to the pilots. So if we add the pilot cellphones in there I'm going to say it probably looks more like 5 to 15 percent of the airports that we service.”
That left 10 percent of the airports without anything - not even cellphone connection to get the latest weather information and other services that are part of the standard aviation safety net in the lower 48, where commuter air accident rates are much lower than in Alaska.
Everyone present wanted better aviation weather and instrument capacities throughout the state, but when talking about the challenges facing Alaska, the syndrome that seemed to recur throughout the day-long fact-finding mission was the “Alaska bush pilot culture." The image of the pilot that pushes his plane to the edge of performance to fly in difficult places as a frontier hero.
That was underscored by the accident that destroyed a Ravn plane October 2 on the slopes of Caribou Ridge just 14 miles from Togiak. There were two Ravn planes flying from Quinhagak to Togiak that day; they left just 10 minutes apart. One ended up crumpled on the steep sides of a mountain, killing all three on board. The other flew the same route, but went just a few miles further southwest of the mountain to avoid weather; that plane arrived in Togiak safely. Clint Wease of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) observed that, “a carrier like Hageland needs to really look at and duplicate the pilot that deviated to the south and west, and figure out why that pilot did that, and duplicate that throughout their organization because that was the right decision to make that day. That’s the key, is to duplicate that behavior and figure out what that is.”
Deek Abbott, also with the FAA, added that it’s the pilot who flies by the rules that lands safely.
“At some point we have to say that if you want to be in this profession, then the rules have a reason. Almost all the rules are written because of something bad that’s happened, and if you want to be in this profession this is the behavior you must display on everything.”
It’s also clear that some rules need work. Hageland has equipped its planes with all sorts of safety gear, including a Terrain Awareness Warning System that alerts pilots if they are getting too close to the ground. The problem is that the regulations require that small commuter flights like Hageland's use a system designed for planes flying at 1000 feet or more altitude. The system starts sounding alarms at 700 feet, but these planes can legally fly as low as 500 feet. Because of this, commuter pilots tend to turn off these, what they call, "nuisance alarms." There is equipment that would go down to 500 feet, but that is not the type required by regulations for these commuter flights.
The aviation terrain in Alaska is also better on paper than it is in reality. Witt said that Hageland looked into instrument flight capacity in the region around the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and found lots of holes in areas where there was supposed to be coverage
“Either communication, or navigation equipment that we think is operational isn’t necessarily operational. Again, if you look at it on paper it can appear to be a lot more adequate than it actually is.”
No one who testified indicated that they would support additional regulations. Instead, Alaska FAA personnel supported the “Medallion Program,” a voluntary industry non-profit group working to help airlines improve training and safety procedures. There was anecdotal evidence indicating that the voluntary program was making the skies safer, but the FAA did not have any data supporting that assertion - despite 15 years of grant support for the Medallion Program.
The NTSB investigation is ongoing, and the final report on the Togiak accident may be completed in a year.