Ted Stevens plane crash: why it’s so dangerous to fly in Alaska

The Ted Stevens plane crash points to the challenges of flying in Alaska, where the accident rate is more than two times worse than it is in the US as a whole.

By , Staff writer

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    In Alaska, air travel depends upon small planes like this one, a DeHavilland DHC-3T believed to be the one involved in the Ted Stevens plane crash. (This photo was taken at Alaska's Lake Nerka in 2009.) But small aircraft are vulnerable to Alaska's severe weather.
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As the tragic crash which killed former Sen. Ted Stevens and four others on a fishing trip this week shows, Alaska is one of the most dangerous places to fly an airplane.

That is particularly true in regards to general aviation – the small Pipers, Cessnas, and DeHavillands on which so many of the state’s isolated communities depend.

Over the five years of 2004 to 2008, the latest for which complete data is available, the general aviation accident rate for Alaska was 13.59 mishaps per every 100,000 flying hours, according to the Air Safety Foundation. That is more than two times worse than the comparable figure for the US as whole: 5.85 accidents per 100,000 flying hours.

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What’s behind this risky record? Bad weather, big mountains, rough airstrips, and the state’s sheer size all contribute to the dangers faced by Alaska’s small plane passengers.

“Travel in Alaska would be impossible without aircraft and it can’t all be in Boeing 737s going to 6,000-foot paved runways. Just isn’t possible,” writes Bruce Landsberg, president of the Air Safety Foundation, in his Air Safety E-Journal.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) records list 584 aircraft crashes in Alaska since the beginning of 2005. All but a handful involved small planes. Reading them reveals the many ways in which even experienced pilots can come to grief in the state. Here are some of the recurring causes of crashes:

Wind

Strong, changeable wind gusts channeled through mountain passes and over lakes are common in the state. At times they have been known to simply blow single-engine planes off runways as they taxi out or in.

On April 26 of this year, a Piper PA-32 Cherokee operating a scheduled commuter flight suffered substantial damage when its landing gear collapsed during a hard landing at King Cove Airport, King Cove Alaska. According to NTSB records, the plane’s pilot said that he was on a short final approach, with his airspeed indicator showing 100 knots, when he was hit by a strong wind gust or shear. His airspeed dropped to zero.

Yes, zero. The plane dropped out of the sky like a brick, crushing the left gear. No one was injured.

Ice

Frozen precipitation is a major problem for Alaska pilots, of course. This is true when it is on the ground as well as blowing through the air. NTSB records are full of bush pilots who skidded off frozen lakes when landing ski planes, or went nose-over on icy runways.

But ice poses subtle dangers as well. On May 21 of this year, a commercial helicopter pilot was flying one passenger and seven dogs to a remote camp, with the closest town being Seward. The camp was about 3,800 feet high on a snow-covered glacier, and as the pilot neared the site, he found that flat light made it difficult to see the topographical features of the ground.

He detoured his Robinson copter to an alternate site but found things no better. Hovering at what he thought was a safe altitude, he inadvertently touched down with his left skid, and the entire aircraft pitched over, with the main rotors impacting on the glacier. The copter came to rest upside down. Minor injuries were incurred.

The pilot told the NTSB “he underestimated the difficulties associated with flat light over snow-covered terrain."

Sudden weather

Snow, ice, rain, wind – lots of locales in the US experience bad weather. But in Alaska, it can hit you in an instant, due to the meteorological effect of its high mountains, deep gorges, and permanent glaciers. Fog often does not creep in on little cat feet in Alaska. It can slam in like a locomotive.

On March 18, 2010, near Port Alsworth, Alaska, two small planes were en route to a remote wilderness lodge in an area of mountainous terrain. As they entered a mountain pass, the two aircraft were separated by a sudden heavy snow shower.

The pilot of the second aircraft, a high-wing Cessna 182 Skylane, said visibility deteriorated to the point where it was difficult to make out topographical features. He elected to turn around. He went to the left in a descending turn, and “collided with an area of snow-covered up-sloping terrain”, according to NTSB records.

The plane sustained major damage, but human injuries were minor. An Emergency Locator Transmitter aided rescuers in reaching the site quickly, notes the NTSB.

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