Alaskan Pilot Culture & Aviation Infrastructure
NTSB Member Weener’s Hearing & Findings
The NTSB held its first hearing outside of Washington in almost 20 years. The official PR reason is that most of the witnesses are located in Alaska, but much to his credit, presiding Member Weener wanted to learn more about the aviation environment in the 50th state and its reputation for its “bush pilot culture.”
As the above dramatic Lowell Thomas, Jr. picture demonstrates, the challenges in flying there are unlike the rest of the US. Risk—weather, the lack of current, high quality WX information, frozen lakes as runways, daunting terrain, minimal radar coverage—are so commonplace that the average pilot has overcome challenges. The need for flight to remote communities with no connection to vital services/supplies creates an unusually high need to complete the operation.
Those unique attributes are why Member Weener traveled to Alaska to learn first-hand what is going on there.
The above articles report on the hearings and special credit is due to Elwood Brehmer of the Alaska Journal of Commerce, whose explanation of the problems is excellent. Below are excerpts from his analysis:
“Why, in the technological age, are airworthy planes still being flown into the ground in Alaska?
…The controlled flight into terrain, or CFIT, crash killed the passenger and both pilots on impact.
While the number of CFIT accidents in Alaska has generally decreased over the last decade-plus, NTSB officials said leading up to the rare field hearing that they really shouldn’t be happening anymore at all.
Federal Aviation Administration officials and Hageland leaders testifying under oath before the board stressed throughout the intense, nine-hour day of inquiry that two age-old Alaska themes are often at the root of CFIT crashes in the state: much of rural Alaska still lacks needed infrastructure to give pilots the information they need — in this case for weather reporting and communications —and the daring, “bush pilot culture” is still pervasive amongst the state’s aviators.
According to FAA data, the number of CFIT accidents in Alaska has gone from eight in 2002 and nine in 2003, to an average of four per year by 2016.
The number of CFIT accidents — fatal and nonfatal — involving commuter and flight service operators known as Part 135 has gone from five in 2002 to four in 2004 and has been one or two per year since 2006.
His first of several recommendations in the letter was for pilots to operate under instrument flight rules, or IFR, whenever possible.
Hageland Operations Manager Luke Hickerson said in his testimony to the NTSBl that about two-thirds of the airports the airline serves don’t have all of the equipment necessary to conduct IFR flights.
According to Hickerson, Hageland has about 7,600 possible “city pairs” in its flight network and its pilots perform roughly 150,000 takeoffs and landings per year on about 55,000 flights.
Erin Witt, Hageland’s chief pilot, estimated that up to 15 percent of the airports the company flies to have no communication capabilities at all.
Hageland serves the numerous villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region of the state on behalf of its larger sister airline Ravn Alaska. The communications challenges are often compounded by the fact that the area regularly has low cloud ceilings that are sometimes at less than 1,000 feet, Hageland pilots testified.
Flying an IFR route allows a pilot to fly through and above cloud cover, almost eliminating the risk of CFIT accidents.
Lacking weather reporting from official equipment such as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration automated weather observing systems, or AWOS, common at larger airports, Hageland pilots regularly use FAA weather cameras and call trusted sources in the villages such as state Department of Transportation workers at the airports for current conditions before take-off and, when possible, during a flight, Hickerson said.
The FAA maintains a network of more than 230 weather cameras in Alaska at airports and high-risk points. While they are viewed by small commercial operators across the state, the cameras are geared towards general aviation and information they provide cannot be used as a formal weather report by a commercial pilot.
When questioned by NTSB investigators why a pilot would rely on unofficial weather information, Hickerson responded by saying the pilots are “going from nothing and making something.”
Flying through clouds and at higher altitudes greatly increases the likelihood that ice will form on the aircraft and when a plane that has flown through icing conditions it cannot take back off without being sprayed down with a glycol solution.
Hageland has developed its own small, portable de-icing sprayer that can be kept in the small aircraft it flies, but with only about five gallons of fluid its usefulness is limited, company representatives testified.
Hickerson said there are reasons CFITs were a serious problem in the Lower 48 up until about 40 years ago.
“I think the technology and infrastructure advancements that have been made in the continental U.S. need to be made here,” he told the NTSB.
Deputy NTSB Director of Aviation Safety John DeLisi said the agency has recommended mandating CFIT avoidance training for all Part 135 pilots — it isn’t currently — while also seeming to commiserate somewhat with the Hageland witnesses.
“It would be great to have that infrastructure and we’re going to do our job to make that point,” DeLisi said in response to Hickerson.
Long said a pending report commissioned by the FAA from the RTCA — an aviation technology nonprofit —should highlight Alaska issues for decision-makers in Washington, D.C. He called the lack of weather and navigational infrastructure in parts of Alaska “a pressing issue.”
“We believe that we have developed approaches that have made people more interested in coming up here as well as providing the information in forms that people understand better and this particular RTCA report will fit in with the recommendations that get made to the agency as a whole,” Long said.
He noted the FAA’s funding has been flat for several years as a result of Congress repeatedly passing continuing budget resolutions, which challenges the agencies’ ability to install new equipment.
“We can ask for it; we can push for it; we can do everything we can but if we can’t deliver we have to try harder,” he added.
Hickerson stressed that “safe, legal, and best practice” is what drives Hageland Aviation.
“It’s a lot easier to write rules and regulations than it is to change hearts and minds and that’s what we’re trying to do right now,” Hickerson said.
He continued: “The idea of turning around 10 years ago was unheard of and shamed not only by other pilots buy by companies as well.”
Wease generally agreed in his testimony, saying a series of Hageland incidents in the 2012-13 timeframe pushed the FAA to uncover what he described as a “poor pilot culture,” that he believes has since been corrected.
The company CEO starts each ground school with a talk to prospective pilots highlighting Hageland’s safety culture, Hickerson said, to illustrate it is truly companywide.
He said the company looks for reckless behavior “in every aspect of pilots’ lives,” because risks don’t announce themselves.
“You’ve got to listen for the whispers in the system,” Hickerson said.
Dale, of the Alaska Air Carriers Association, said the industry group does not agree with the belief that there is still an unsafe pilot culture in the state. Alaska operators “work hard to ensure a culture of safety,” according to Dale.
She again cited a lack of needed equipment in some areas of the state, noting some of the current AWOS and navigational infrastructure is often out of service.
Witt said pilots applying to fly for Hageland are screened with questions related to their decision-making and risk tolerances and about 10 percent of applicants are denied solely on those answers.
To that, FAA Alaska Certificate Office Manager Deke Abbott, who spent most of his career in aviation Outside, said he was taken aback by the adventurous nature of many Alaska pilots.
“We push the airplanes to get where we’re going,” Abbott said to the board, adding that when a pilot makes a decision, the consequences of that decision are ultimately solely the pilot’s responsibility.
“We’re trying to change a 100-year culture,” he concluded.”
Alaska is unusual and Member Weener’s hearing has had its desired effect. The problems there—pilot culture and infrastructure—are well documented. Congress would be well advised to escalate the funding of Alaskan aviation infrastructure. The pilot culture will require much attention by the airlines, the GA community and the FAA.
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