Editor's note: Earlier this month, Alaska Dispatch provided Alaska State Troopers with a list of questions related to the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation into the fatal 2013 crash of search-and-rescue chopper Helo-1. Those questions, and troopers' responses, are printed below in their entirety.
1. Have SAR protocols changed since the crash of Helo 1? If so, how?
SAR protocols have not changed.
2. Are pilots still on hourly pay with overtime? Have they been put on salary? Or has the pay structure been modified in any way to discourage them from becoming dependent on overtime or standby pay to bolster their annual income?
The pay structure depends on each position and what union they belong to. It has not changed.
3. Who now has the ultimate Go/No-Go authority on SAR flights?
The pilot has the right to refuse based upon the pilots risk assessment of the mission and other factors. The DPS aircraft section is in the process of developing a formalized risk assessment matrix that will require pilots to assess the many factors that need to be considered in a safe flight.
4. Is AST now training troopers or others to ride as qualified observers on SAR flights? If so, who is doing that training?
DPS does have volunteer groups that provide trained observers when possible. The aircraft section is examining options for additional observer training for search and rescue spotters in our aircraft. Some options include training from other state agencies that provide training in this area or outside training from private companies.
5. Is an NVG qualified observer now required to accompany the pilot on night SAR operations?
We have discontinued all NVG operations until further notice. We are reevaluating the NVG program and intend on revisiting these types of operations after we fully examine and update our current program. Any NVG program that we move forward will be in accordance with best industry standards.
6. What is the name of the new safety officer and what are his or her specific aviation qualifications?
That position is going through the hiring process. This person will be in charge of our safety management system and general safety related daily DPS aviation operations statewide.
7. What is the chain of command between the safety officer, a SAR incident commander, and the Helo pilot?
The safety officer will oversee the safety management system and general safety related daily DPS aviation operations statewide. This person works for the Aircraft Section Commander. The SAR incident commander can be any number of people that is in charge of incident, whether it’s a trooper in the field or a volunteer for an organized SAR organization. We have different pilots that fly helicopters, including a few commissioned troopers who fall under their regular chain of command for either AST or AWT. SAR is not the only duty tasked to our helicopter pilots. Many of our helicopter pilots participate in wildlife and fisheries patrols statewide.
8. What are the specifics of any new weather guidelines - cloud height, visibility minimums, potential icing - that trigger approval of a supervisor before a flight?
They are FAA guidelines and based on pilot experience and certification. DPS has changed some weather guidelines for helicopter flights including night operations and weather minimums. Each DPS pilot has their own individualized minimums based upon their experience and flight time. Pilots are required to adhere to their minimums at all times.
9. What are the aviation qualifications of any supervisor granted a role in making Go/No-Go flight decisions?
Depends. There will be a matrix that is currently under development, that a pilot will need to go through prior to each mission. When certain criteria on this checklist are met, outside approval must be sought. Some of the supervisors are pilots, some are not, but all make life or death decisions every day. When risks meet a certain threshold, a pilot supervisor must be consulted to give permission for the flight.
10. On those flights that trigger supervisory approval, is the supervisor now required to continue to monitor weather throughout the flight?
This is still being developed. In the meantime, the department is in the process of installing real-time satellite tracking equipment that will allow the RCC or dispatch to monitor flights, depending on the situation.
11. Are there new standards for the pilots to undertake recurrent training? If so, what are they?
This is under development. The DPS Aircraft Section is currently examining recurrency training standards. If standards are determined to not be sufficient, DPS will implement new standards that will apply to all DPS pilots.
12. Have the assigned duty days for pilots been changed? If so, what are they now?
Duty days are structured to allow for mandated rest time. Civilian DPS pilots are no longer on standby on their regular days off.
13. Are pilots "on call" at night after working other duties during the day?
The eight full-time civilian pilots work as pilots during the day. The rest of the department’s pilots are commissioned troopers with regular trooper duties and trooper-specific duty hours. For the DPS Civilian helicopter pilots, once they have worked their total hours and are out of time, they are not on standby. Once they have completed their duty day they are subject to mandatory rest and they are not subject to call out.
14. Can a duty day still be extended from 12 to 15 hours in an "emergency situation?'' If it can, have any standards been established to stipulate which SAR operations fail to qualify as "emergency situations"?
Yes, they potentially can be, but it depends on the many different situations that require constant evaluation and reevaluation to determine all risks involved.
15. Have pre-flight risk assessment or risk management procedures and checklists been established to help insulate pilots from undue pressure from any sources, including self-induced pressure?
They are being developed (see question nine. There have been many times in the past where the department has said no to a flight request due to factors such as weather, status of available equipment and availability of personnel for the mission.
16. Who provides aviation insurance for AST?
The State of Alaska is self-insured. Additional information can be obtained through the State of Alaska department of Administration, Division of Risk Management.
17. Why was Mel Nading called out on a Saturday night, which isn't shown as a duty day anywhere in his regular schedule? Was he basically on call 24/7? If not, who were the pilots scheduled to regularly cover the 48 hours of weekend, and who covered from 3:30 PM - midnight each weekday?
This is a part of the NTSB investigation.
18. Was it a standard practice for AST pilots to serve as instructors or check pilots for each other, and does that remain the situation?
All of our check pilots are FAA certified and either meet or exceed FAA standards. We have the ability to sign off our pilots for upgrades to flight status through FAA. Everything we do is to FAA standards. There are annual requirements for all of our helicopter pilots to participate in out of state training at certified helicopter training facilities.
19. What special qualifications are required for a pilot to qualify as a DPS instructor or check pilot?
In addition to FAA mandatory standards, we choose the best qualified applicants. Our DPS FAA certified check airmen must have a minimum of 2000 hours of flight time in addition to other DPS minimum requirements.
20. Are troopers, as the Anchorage Daily News reported, ending the use of night-vision goggles, and what does that mean? Will night times SARs be automatically passed on to the Alaska National Guard, or does this mean there will be no SAR operations for 16 to 20 hours per day during the Alaska winter?
The department has suspended its NVG program, pending a review. The Alaska Department of Public Safety is tasked with the responsibility of search and rescue across Alaska under the authority of Alaska state statute AS 18.60.120-175. Under that authority, Troopers conduct search and rescue activities with aircraft, watercraft and land vehicles. If troopers can’t respond by land, water or air, other options include contacting the 11th Air Force Rescue Coordination Center. The Army and Air National Guard and Coast Guard coordinate SAR operations in and off the coast of Alaska. The cooperative and joint efforts between the department, the state and federal partners, and SAR volunteer organizations, provides for the best possible use of the manpower, assets and equipment to locate and recover missing and injured individuals.
21. Who was on call during Nading's lunch hour from 3/16 - 3/30? Also, he was paid for March 25 as a holiday -- but if he was on call, as normal, then it should have been 7.5 hours regular time + holiday pay. Was someone else on call that day?
That is part of the NTSB investigation.