With a fatal plane crash in New Jersey making headlines several days ago and the FAA issuing new rules addressing commercial airline pilot fatigue, a bit of bright news comes from a new study on Alaska aviation, and how the state's multi-pronged approach to reducing fatal plane crashes has had a significant effect on the number of crashes in the last two decades.
The study, released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, focuses on the Alaska Interagency Aviation Safety Initiative (AIASI), funded by Congress in 2000 as a response to the high rate of fatal plane crashes into Alaska's terrain.
"During the 1990s," the report states in the introduction, "Alaska workers had the highest occupational fatality rate in the nation -- over three times the national rate. Aircraft crashes were the second leading cause (following drowning) of occupational death in Alaska during this time, taking the lives of 192 workers."
This accounted for an Alaska fatality rate equivalent to 410 deaths for every 100,000 commercial pilots -- five times higher than the national average for pilots, and 100 times higher than the average U.S. worker, the study said. Although only 7 percent of all plane crashes in the U.S. occurred in Alaska, one-third of small commercial (part 135) plane crashes took place in Alaska from 1990 to 2009.
A leading cause of those deaths were what are called Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT) crashes, where a plane hits a mountainside or other terrain. The study reports a lack of on-the-ground resources, like weather reporting stations and navigational aids, in the isolated Alaska countryside was a factor contributing to these crashes. CFIT crashes are more often fatal than other types of crashes.
Thus the AIASI was borne out of a need to drive down these deaths. It led to the creation of several programs and agencies, including the FAA's weather camera program -- which now hosts 150 weather cameras at airports around Alaska. Also listed as AIASI programs were the installation of "advanced navigational equipment" in 485 aircraft, new weather stations, and safety programs like those created by the aviation safety groups Medallion Foundation and the FAA's Circle of Safety.
Following implementation of these technical and procedural improvements, the report said the rate of commercial pilot deaths from 2000 to 2009 dropped by 50 percent when compared to the preceding decade. But CFIT crashes remained more dangerous than other types of crashes.
"Flight into adverse weather may increase the risk of fatality due to high impact forces when pilots crash into unseen terrain," the report said, "as well as hamper search efforts; cold temperatures may limit survivability of injured persons while waiting for rescue."
When the FAA announced new rules for managing fatigue among commercial airline pilots last week, Deborah Hersman, head of the National Transportation Safety Board took the agency to task about limiting the fatigue rules only to part 121, large commercial airline pilots and excluding smaller operators and cargo flights. The new study makes mention of the role of pilot fatigue in Alaska crashes.
"While fatigue has been identified as an important risk factor for short-haul operations," the report said, "the specific effect fatigue plays in decision making for pilots should be explored further."
The report credits the multifaceted approach to reducing crash rates as key to the AIASI program's success, and adds that the remediation measures put in place as part of the program have improved safety across all types of aviation operations.
"This successful multi-faceted approach might be applied to reduce occupational fatalities and injuries in other industries," the study concludes.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com