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Another season of safe flying around Denali

Colleen Mondor
Jacob W. Frank / NPS

One bright spot in Alaska’s aviation industry this year has been the safety record in Denali National Park. Through the climbing and tourist seasons, there have been no accidents on the mountain or the surrounding area, an impressive achievement when considering the conditions pilots there face everyday.

The last fatality accident in Denali occurred in October 2009 when wolf biologist Gordon Haber was killed while flying with a private pilot in a remote area. That accident, like fatality crashes in 2005 and 2003, was due to pilot error. In the past ten years there have been ten accidents by commercial and private pilots in the park; two of them were caused by mechanical problems, six were due to pilot error and the last two are still under investigation. The most devastating crash in the past ten years occurred in 2003 when the pilot and three passengers on a McKinley Air Service charter flight enroute to Kahiltna glacier were killed in a collision with rising terrain.

A lot of attention was paid this season to the saga of six tourists stranded on Ruth Glacier for 4 days due to poor weather in July. Another incident, three weeks later, resulted in a forced landing on the Parks Highway after an engine failure. Neither of these episodes merited formal investigation from the NTSB but both are worthy of further examination. In each case the pilots (flying for Talkeetna Air Taxi), made decisions that minimized any potential for equipment damage or injury. Upon reflection, while both were certainly news stories, they are also good examples of how pilot decision-making is such a significant part of aviation safety.

Choosing the appropriate course of action when flying is tricky business. An engine failure involves not only working through a checklist but also the quick selection of a suitable landing area. A road, especially one with minimal traffic, is always a good choice and pilots do train for this possibility. In the Parks Highway incident, the pilot had to make an immediate decision to land there; any delay could have resulted in not having enough altitude to affect a proper set-up for landing.

On Mt. McKinley, the choice to sit tight after inclement weather hit resulted in an impromptu camping trip but did not place the pilot or six passengers in a dangerous low-to-zero visibility situation while inflight. While the desire to return as soon as possible to Talkeetna must have been great, the pilot erred on the side of caution and his passengers did not seem to mind. One of them, Glenn Hard, was quite upbeat while discussing the trip with the Pikes Peak Herald after returning home to Colorado:

“The time I had scheduled to fish was spent sitting on the glacier,” he said. “We still had a lot of fun. We just missed about three days.”

While crashes garner a great deal of media attention in Alaska, it is just as important to note those situations in which accidents are avoided. A lot of good things happened in Denali this summer and the solid work of all the air taxis and pilots there should be commended.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com