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 4 of 6)
In the first two phases of Capstone, the FAA had purchased the required avionics and installed them on small commercial airplanes. But in Alaska, many more private aircraft had crashed than commercial ones. When the second phase of the program ended, a loan program from the state government encouraged owners who had not received the instruments to buy their own, but few did. A big reason was the cost: Between $20,000 and $30,000 for a single airplane.
Even when the equipment was free, it was a hard sell, especially in the beginning. Many pilots feared that FAA officials would use what they learned to charge aviators with violations. While pilots had reservations, many airline operators were enthusiastic, for the same reason that gave some pilots pause: ADS-B provided operators a way to track their airplanes.
It was common among Alaskan bush pilots to take on side jobs, which they would do on company time. Others flew where they weren’t supposed to. Webster recalls one owner who, while viewing an ADS-B demonstration early in the Capstone program, pulled out his cell phone and called the dispatcher, inquiring about the location of a certain pilot, who was supposed to be hauling cargo. “The dispatcher told him the pilot was flying, and the owner fired back, ‘No he’s not. He’s over at his mom’s. I can see him on the screen. You tell him to get back on route.’ ”
The promise of more revenue for airplane operators rallied support for Capstone. But it was safety that won over the pilots. Hallinan says that pilots eventually supported Capstone for one reason: “Everybody here in Alaska knows somebody who has died in a plane accident.”
One was Dan Trusdale, who balanced work on Capstone with his regular FAA assignment: inspecting and assessing equipment and facilities at Alaskan airports. Trusdale died at a time in the Capstone program when ADS-B was in its infancy and hadn’t yet been proven to work. The loss of Trusdale “put the statistics in italics for everyone back east,” says Webster. New FAA Administrator Jane Garvey went to Trusdale’s funeral and returned periodically to Alaska, attending meetings with the state’s aviation community. These were arranged by the Capstone Industry Council, which the FAA started as part of an outreach program to the Alaskan aviation community. By 1999, the council had won the support of Alaskan aviators and airline operators. A letter from Garvey committed the federal government to Capstone.
But a critical step remained: a demonstration that proved ADS-B would actually work under real conditions. The FAA had to sign off on the test, a process hampered by red tape strung by mid-level bureaucrats. The solution came amid severe weather, not in Alaska but in the nation’s capital.
On September 19, 2000, Washington, D.C., braced for Hurricane Gordon, and non-essential federal workers were told to stay home. It was just what Hallinan needed. “Most of the [FAA] building was gone and I was able to have meaningful conversations with decision-makers without having a lot of front guard to body-block me,” he says. Those discussions ultimately cleared the way for the FAA to approve Skip Nelson’s history-making test flight of ADS-B in January 2001.