NTSB holds field hearing in Anchorage to try to prevent more plane crashes

Published: Aug. 17, 2017 at 5:22 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Why are so many perfectly good planes crashing in Alaska?

That occurrence has become so common that the National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday took a step it has not in decades: convening an investigative hearing away from Washington, a gathering of aviation experts in Anchorage intended to hit the troubling trend head-on and get to the bottom of one so-called Controlled Flight Into Terrain ("CFIT") that claimed three lives last fall in Togiak.

Ravn Connect operated that October 2 flight, a mail run that came to a tragic end when the plane slammed into a mountainside.

Overall, in the past nine years, 40 people have died in 35 CFIT crashes that have happened in Alaska. CFIT is aviation speak for a plane in working order goes down, typically due to pilot error.

The rate of that category of crash here in Alaska is by far the highest in the country.

In the Togiak crash, the Cessna 208 Caravan was equipped with a Terrain Awareness Warning System ("TAWS") manufactured by Honeywell, which is designed to alert a pilot when trouble is ahead. The aircraft even had two pilots on board, one of whom had received CFIT avoidance training that included a simulation.

However, when the flight took off from Quinaghak, it operated mostly at less than 1,000 feet above sea level, according to the NTSB. At that elevation, the alarm on Honeywell's system starts flashing constantly to signal that the pilot should proceed with caution. Many pilots switch the system off because they see the low-elevation warning as a nuisance, experts testified on Thursday.

While investigators have not yet confirmed whether that happened on flight 3158, there is consensus on one challenge facing Alaska aviators: a lack of infrastructure that prompts commercial airlines to operate based on what they can see, visual flight rules, instead of what advanced airplane instruments indicate, instrument flight rules.

Ravn's chief pilot, Erin Witt told board members that nearly one-quarter of the airports where the airline does business -- mainly in Western Alaska and almost exclusively in rural villages -- lack any form of communication infrastructure. That means when pilots leave hub towns they are often unable to check weather updates or to communicate with their company or government flight service towers.

That leaves pilots to decide whether to fly under instrument or visual flight rules without current information about how cloud ceilings are rising or falling, or anything else that could become a big safety concern in the air. That is why visual flights are so common.

"The (instrument) infrastructure in Alaska, if we look at it as a whole, we're lacking communication. We're lacking navigation, and we're lacking legal weather services," Witt said. "If the infrastructure supported it, we would (use instruments) all the time."

Another major point of contention is the level of training pilots receive to avoid CFIT crashes.

None is required by the Federal Aviation Administration, which defers to the nonprofit Medallion Foundation, which operates a so-called "shield program" in part through grants from FAA.

Medallion, created in 2001 by the Alaska Air Carriers Association with the goal of improving aviation safety, runs a CFIT prevention program that has two parts: one is simple instructions provided by computer, and the other includes practice in a simulator.

In order to get a shield from Medallion, something considered a key safety certification for commercial operators, the airline must prove excellence in operational control, maintenance and ground service, safety, and internal evaluation, and CFIT avoidance. However, a shield can still be awarded to company that only does the simple CFIT training.

Even though many operators seek a shield, one FAA official at the Anchorage hearing asked Jerry Rock of Medallion to address the perception that a certification from his foundation is about as meaningful as an "award" given to a company by Good Housekeeping that paid for the "honor."

The implication is that the shield is essentially a public relations ploy that does little to connote the actual safety of an air operator.

"We spend more money going and auditing their stations than what they pay us," Rock said of companies that seek a Medallion certificate. "Most of our carriers pay probably in the $600 range, and we still have to go there."

A determination of cause in the Togiak crash remains a long way off even after the investigative hearing, and there are no immediate action items on how to achieve progress toward the infrastructure many experts agree Alaska needs or how to improve safety and training requirements.

Maybe the biggest challenge of all moving forward, though, is getting away from an aviation culture that values arriving on time above all, said Witt, the chief pilot.

"The historical lack of (instrument) infrastructure has put undue pressure on the pilots to ensure passengers, mail, and cargo get from point 'A' to point 'B,'" Witt said. "Culture and mindset are key. As a whole, the industry, the culture in Alaska needs to change."