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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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The slopes of Alaska’s Gastineau Channel framed the single-engine Cessna 172RG Cutlass on descent into Juneau on the clear afternoon of May 30, 1998. The airport had no radar and the mountains on either side blocked signals from other locations, forcing the pilot, Federal Aviation Administration official Dan Trusdale, to rely on what he could see.

If Trusdale saw the air tour helicopter, it was too late. The two aircraft collided. The helicopter landed with one injured passenger, but Trusdale and his passenger were killed. The documents they had planned to present later that day to Alaskan pilots and airline owners were scattered on the channel waters, papers that described a navigational system they hoped would cut the number of aviation deaths in Alaska.

“The accident was a classic example of what we were trying to fix,” says Dave Palmer, who at the time was the National Airspace System implementation program manager for Alaska. In the 1990s, airplanes in the state were crashing every other day, with one death every nine days. The FAA had tried education, certification and safety programs, even a zero-tolerance policy that grounded pilots for 15 days if they were caught violating a safety regulation. “None of that worked,” says John Hallinan, an FAA flight standards officer at the regional office in Anchorage. What ultimately did work was the availability of federal dollars. The money enabled the Anchorage team to develop a technology-based program called Capstone.

In the mid-1990s, two reports—one by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the other from an FAA advisory commission, the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA)—pointed to GPS and other technologies as part of the answer to Alaska’s aviation problem. Vice President Al Gore, working with George Donohue, the FAA associate administrator of research and acquisition, launched an initiative to improve air safety in Alaska and Hawaii, another state where aviation accidents were common. The initiative failed, largely for cost reasons, “but it showed us that the FAA might make some money available” for technology development, says Hallinan. He and his colleagues just needed a way to get at it.

Working in a fourth floor conference room of the moderately high-rise FAA building in downtown Anchorage, Hallinan and his team filled the dry erase boards on the walls with ideas that they then boiled down to a four-page document. From that emerged Capstone. The name was picked because the program pulled together ideas that safety advocates had discussed earlier but which had not been implemented—weather reporting, GPS-instrumented landing, and communications—“like a capstone that stabilizes everything underneath it,” Hallinan explains.

In the years leading up to the program, some Alaskan pilots used GPS units, placed atop glare shields or suction-cupped to windscreens. But these were neither FAA-certified nor accurate enough for pilots to fly under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), the regulations and procedures for flying an aircraft using only the instrument panel for navigation. (Visual Flight Rules, or VFR, are those under which a pilot flies in weather clear enough to see the ground to navigate.) And while the GPS units helped in navigation and providing aircraft location, they did not survey the airspace to find other aircraft in the vicinity, enable communication with another pilot nearby, or provide a data link to air traffic controllers. And most Alaskan pilots didn’t use GPS anyway, instead relying on radios, magnetic compasses, and wristwatches. Dead reckoning and a bag full of maps got them from one place to another. Or not.

In Alaska, more than 39 mountain ranges with towering peaks and deep gorges can ensnare aviators in sometimes fierce and rapidly changing weather. When the terrain gets snowed over and ceilings drop, “it’s like trying to fly inside a bottle of milk,” says Elmer Webster, a 30-year veteran of the Alaskan skies. “Mix strong gusty conditions with freezing rain or snow and air traffic congestion, and you have a recipe for death by airplane.”

Using the findings in the NTSB and RTCA reports, Hallinan and several FAA colleagues decided three things would make Alaskan skies safer: determining aircraft location, identifying aircraft in airspace to avoid mid-air collisions, and preventing “controlled flight into terrain”—fully functioning aircraft crashing into the ground or sides of mountains.

The key, they determined, would be to develop a system that provided pilots in Alaska with GPS-based surveillance, weather data, and enhanced flight communications.

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