Alaska’s Crash Epidemic
How technology and an FAA regional office ended it.
- By Greg Freiherr
- Air & Space magazine, June 2013
Jeff Schultz / Alaska Stock
(Page 3 of 6)
Weather information was a big deal. A 1995 NTSB report on Alaskan aviation recognized poor weather—and pilot acceptance of its risks—as the chief cause of the high accident rate. Those who flew when they shouldn’t were called “scud runners.” Gary Childers, an FAA flight standards official who flew for the military and has thousands of hours flying over frozen tundra, admits to being a scud runner. Once, in an Army helicopter, Childers was flying in whiteout conditions under a 500-foot cloud ceiling with one-mile visibility, following what he thought was one river only to find out it was another. “I was fortunate to realize it and turn around,” he says, “but you get into those canyons and into situations where you can’t turn around. That’s probably how some of my friends were killed.”
A New era for Alaskan aviation began on January 1, 2001, with veteran pilot Robert “Skip” Nelson at the controls of a twin-engine turboprop freighter, a CASA C-212 Aviocar, flying out of Anchorage. On any other day, 125 miles east of Bethel, Nelson would have been told by the Anchorage controller that he was about to fly beyond radar coverage, and would have been asked to take a fix on his destination. This fix indicates the position of the aircraft relative to its destination, as determined by radio beacons, compasses, or paper maps. More often than not, however, to bush pilots in Alaska, it meant flying under IFRR, an acronym, says Webster, for “I Follow Rivers and Roads.”
“But on that particular day, [the controller] said ‘Radar services terminated, your ADS-B vector is…,’ ” recalls Nelson who, at that moment, became the first pilot to use an FAA-certified ADS-B system.
After Bethel, Capstone officials turned their attention to southeastern Alaska, a region that borders British Columbia and spans 600 miles from Ketchikan to Cordova, marked by glacier-cut fjords, steep mountains, and dense rainforests. More advanced technology was developed to handle the rugged terrain. Installed on about 180 airplanes, the equipment reported positions not only to controllers but to other aircraft as well, projecting the data on 3D displays of terrain and the surrounding airspace. Mountains had height; canyons, depth. Approaching aircraft appeared higher or lower, with vectors indicating direction and speed.
“We were beginning to fly like controllers control,” says Nelson. “The question controllers ask is ‘Do the chopsticks [flight paths] cross some place out there in space?’ and we were starting to do that from the cockpit.”
As the program matured, the technology became more sophisticated. A new legion of navigation satellites helped correct errors in GPS data, pinpointing locations to within meters. Cockpit displays consisted of two LED screens. One was the Primary Flight Display, with airspeed, altitude, and heading imposed on a forward-looking 3D view of the terrain. The “highway in the sky” feature kept pilots on course by guiding them to fly inside a series of on-screen boxes. The other display typically showed a top-down view of the terrain, airspeed, ground speed, and heading. If needed, however, it could be reconfigured at the touch of a button as the backup Primary Flight Display.
Within a few years of its first use, pilots were making fewer errors. Routes were more direct. Airplanes needed less separation, making air travel more efficient. Seeing the positions of other aircraft on their cockpit displays, pilots sequenced their landing approaches like cars entering a highway from an on-ramp. Following their aircraft on office computer screens, airline operators could better plan for the arrival of passengers and cargo. Aviation accidents in Alaska dropped by almost half.