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Lowell Thomas Jr. threads his Helio Courier through the Alaska Range peaks called the Moose’s Tooth. Terrain like this and treacherous weather gave Alaska the highest aviation accident rate in the country. (Jeff Schultz / Alaska Stock)

Alaska’s Crash Epidemic

How technology and an FAA regional office ended it.

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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.

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.’ ”

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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.

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