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Halfway through Alaska's most-dangerous flying season, 22 are already dead

Colleen Mondor
The National Transportation Safety Board team at the Soldotna Airport site of a crash that killed 10 people. NTSB

After three deadly crashes in just over a month, Alaskans find themselves dealing with the worst lost of life in aviation accidents for years. Less than seven months into the year, we have already seen five crashes that resulted in 22 fatalities, with 31 total accidents to date.

Perhaps more alarming is the realization that we are not even halfway through the most dangerous flying season.

In surveying accident data for the past five years, it is clear that more than half the annual aircraft crashes take place between June 1 and Sept. 30. This makes sense as Alaska sees increased traffic during those months. There is also an increase in pilots flying here from out of state, as in the group led by the aircraft involved in the June 28 Cantwell crash. Consequently, the significance of the next three months on the safety record for 2013 cannot be overstated.

Err on the side of caution

From 2008 to 2012, Alaska averaged 60 accidents between June and September with a high of 67 in 2012 and a low of 53 in 2010. They range widely in severity, as crashes do throughout the year. But their frequency should raise alarms for Alaska pilots. With the overwhelming percentage of accidents in the state still involving pilot error as a cause or factor, any steps that can be taken to avoid adding to those statistics should be.

Pilots should practice extreme caution when encountering inclement weather and err on the side of caution. They should familiarize themselves with specific geographic and other conditions of where they’re flying (such as potential radio frequency confusion in the Mat-Su) and pilots should always file flight plans. Further, if you are flying with extra passengers or gear, take the time to conduct careful weight and balance calculations prior to loading to avoid an aft-center-of-gravity situation on takeoff.

Perhaps the most important thing any Alaskan pilot should do, however, is upgrade to a 406 MHz ELT. It certainly doesn’t hurt to carry a back-up locator beacon but the 406 MHz ELT is the most significant piece of equipment to have onboard and will substantially speed up search and rescue efforts to a downed aircraft’s location. It can quite literally be the difference between life and death for you and your passengers. (For more on the benefits of the 406 MHz beacon versus the older 121.5 Mhz beacon see this table.) 

The terrible Soldotna crash has rightfully garnered a great deal of statewide and national attention due to the 10 deaths. However, those who work in and enjoy Alaskan aviation are well aware that every accident is major to the people involved and their loved ones. A single pilot fatality is one too many and as the summer continues, an emphasis on making wise choices and avoiding tragic mistakes can’t be overemphasized.

Colleen Mondor is a former dispatcher for a Fairbanks-based air carrier. Her book, The Map Of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska, details her years working in the Alaska aviation industry. Contact her at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com.