Alaska’s Crash Epidemic

How technology and an FAA regional office ended it.

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)
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Although accidents were rampant throughout the state, Capstone put those technologies only in commuter and charter aircraft, and just those aircraft that flew in areas where crashes were prevalent. An early focal point was Bethel, the commercial hub for Alaska’s sprawling Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Its airport is situated at sea level, and the area 35 miles around the facility is “flat as a fritter,” says Webster. “If you’re going to develop a system, the first place to do it is not in the rocks.”

Several mountain ranges separate the FAA’s radar in Anchorage and the coastal plain where Bethel is situated, blocking signals from aircraft below 5,000 feet. Supplies flown into Bethel are air taxied to 53 villages in the delta, some just a few miles apart. For many, aviation remains the only means of transportation. A Cessna 210 with four passengers and 300 pounds of mail might fly from, say, Bethel to Hopper Bay to Scammon Bay, then to Chevak, before returning.

Alaskans fly as often as people in the Lower 48 drive. Air taxis—single-engine aircraft with unpressurized cabins—take passengers to work and school, high school teams to games, food and medicine to remote villages. “Our options are a plane, several hours cross-country on a snow machine, or a day or two by dog sled,” says Webster. Single-engine Cessna 207s and 208 Caravans and twin-engine CASA 212s and DHC-6 Twin Otters are the workhorses, carrying passengers and cargo to small communities. “If someone orders a pizza from Bethel and they live in Napaskiak, it might be delivered by a Cessna 172,” says Webster.

Although busy by Alaskan standards, Bethel traffic could not justify the cost of its own radar. Neither could most airports in the state; according to the FAA, only 76 of 405—fewer than one in five—have paved runways.

In the first phase of Capstone, funded by the FAA and focused on situational awareness, 208 airplanes were equipped with GPS and Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) data links (see “How Satellites Make Flying Safer,” p. 63). Across the delta, 11 ground stations were installed to relay GPS data from aircraft to air traffic controllers.

With Capstone, air traffic controllers in Alaska could pinpoint ADS-B–equipped airplanes with better-than-radar precision, guiding aircraft along their routes. Information about winds aloft, temperatures, barometric pressures, and ceiling heights was sent to pilots in the context of weather maps.

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.

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