Aviation experts say infrastructure gaps contribute to Alaska’s air fatality rate

Mountains and ocean from a plane window
View of Misty Fjords National Monument from a float plane on Aug. 1, 2021. The area has been the site of several aviastion accidents. (Molly Lubbers/KRBD)

For Alaskans who track political history, the airplane accident that killed Eugene “Buzzy” Peltola, husband of Alaska Congresswoman Mary Peltola, triggers grim memories. 

There was the 2010 crash that killed former Sen. Ted Stevens in Southwest Alaska. The 1978 crash in Anchorage that killed Stevens’s first wife, Ann, and four others, including the husband of a state legislator. The disappearance in 1972, a plane carrying Alaska’s then-congressman, Nick Begich, and House Majority Leader Hale Boggs.

It’s not just political figures. Aviation safety in Alaska lags the rest of the country, but recent data point to possible improvements.

According to the Air Safety Institute, Alaska’s fatality rate per hours flown in small private aircraft used to be almost twice as high as elsewhere. It has declined dramatically since 2016, but is still higher than the national average. Same for air taxis and other small commercial aircraft.  

Colleen Mondor, a Fairbanks pilot and aviation writer with encyclopedic knowledge of Alaska’s plane accidents, thinks aviation safety in Alaska hasn’t garnered sustained national attention, because each accident results in only a few fatalities. 

“Every now and again there’s a big one, a mid-air. … that breaks through the national news,” she said “But mostly we die like this – one or two or three at a time. It just gets lost.”

She’s sick of seeing the blame placed on Alaska’s weather. Other places have severe weather, too, she said.

“It’s not the weather. Okay?’” she said. “It’s not that ‘Oh, my God, that weather was so bad.’ It’s what was the information provided on the weather?”

The real problem – she and other aviation experts say – is that Alaska hasn’t had enough safety infrastructure, like paved runways, statewide communication coverage and — one of the most critical – weather reporting equipment.  

In Alaska, the FAA and the National Weather Service manage about 140 automated weather stations that provide crucial information to pilots.

Tom George, Alaska manager for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said that’s not nearly enough.

“We’d have to get about 180 more stations in Alaska to have the same average density that the rest of the country enjoys,” he said.

Telecom and radar gaps leave Alaska pilots in the dark in some spots, he said.

The FAA declined interview requests on Friday but said it is making improvements.

“We’re increasing and improving weather data reporting and forecasting, expanding satellite-based air-traffic control coverage to more areas, improving navigation charting, and publishing new GPS-guided routes that allow pilots to navigate direct flight paths at lower altitudes to avoid icing conditions,” the agency said in an email.

George also credits the FAA for installing more weather cameras, which he said in some ways provide more useful information than weather stations, and they can be installed in mountain passes and other critical remote spots.

“That’s proven to be a great way to actually get a look directly at the weather and help people figure out whether they should take off or whether they should drink more coffee and wait for better conditions to improve,” he said.

In July, the U.S. House passed an FAA reform bill that would, among other things, call for more weather equipment to be deployed in Alaska. Congresswoman Peltola voted for it last summer and urged the Senate to do the same.

So far, there’s no indication that Alaska’s weather or aviation infrastructure played a role in Buzzy Peltola’s death. The National Transportation Safety Board said it will take up to three weeks for a preliminary report, and a final report could take up to two years.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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