Ted Stevens Crash: A Nasty Reminder

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When I was watching the morning news the other day and an overhead view of the Ted Stevens crash site flashed on the screen, I had two immediate reactions. The first: I've seen this before. And a second later, I found myself wondering why this kind of accident still happens.

To the first reaction, the wreckage showed the classic pattern of a relatively slow impact. The front of the aircraft was crushed, but the fuselage was generally intact and the wings, although collapsed, were still attached to the main body of wreckage by the tendrils. They weren't shredded. To me, this suggests the typical CFIT—flight into rising terrain that the pilot didn't realize was there. Unless, of course, it was gliding flight following an engine or other failure into unavoidable terrain and he tried to make the best of a bad deal. For the sake of this discussion, I'm discounting the engine failure and assuming the airplane was in relatively slow-climbing flight or descending at a similar slow speed.

Either way, the question about why this continues to happen derives from the availability of relatively cheap technology to keep it from happening, specifically TAWs or if not that, synthetic vision or even a Garmin portable with terrain alerting engaged. Why would anyone fly around Alaska with its surfeit of high terrain and nasty weather without this equipment aboard? In fact, the aircraft may very well have had this gear. If it did, maybe the pilot wasn't paying attention or maybe the alluring certainty of electronically depicted terrain emboldened him to stretch the margins to the breaking point. All speculation, of course. The NTSB will do its thing and we'll find out a year from now.

In the meantime, this accident once again drives home realities that exist in Alaska that most of us in the lower 48 don't appreciate. The road network in Alaska is limited, people depend on airplanes, airplanes drive commerce and, as a result, some pilots there routinely conduct flight operations in conditions the rest of us would consider insane.

As a result, the accident rate in Alaska is higher and so is the fatal rate, not to mention the raw number of accidents. When I first started writing about aircraft accidents 25 years ago, the cumulative stats always used to exclude Alaska because including it distorted the averages. Later in the same day that I'd seen the crash site picture, NPR noted that Stevens' first wife had died in an aircraft accident. What are the odds of that, you might ask. Not very high in Alabama, but not very low in Alaska because if you're going anywhere, you're probably going by air. Mix the weather, the distance, the terrain and commercial pressure and the probabilities don't look quite so comforting over a 30-year flying career. The numbers have a way of catching up with even the smartest risk takers. Or the luckiest.

Some years ago, the NTSB did an investigation of accidents trends in Alaska and found what it called the "bush syndrome," which is a polite way of saying some people who fly in conditions like this have different risk models than those who don't. No surprise there. I'm sure some are downright wild-eyed, some are more daring than you or I, and most are just canny pilots who don't scare easily.

The accident rate in Alaska has diminished, thanks in part to the Capstone project and a sustained effort there to scale back bush syndrome, if it ever existed to the degree the NTSB claimed. Still, Alaska remains a persistently more hazardous flight environment than the lower 48 and improving or not, it will probably always have a higher accident rate as a result.

There's a price to pay for keeping the state's outlying villages supplied and although it's mostly paid in treasure, blood comes due all too frequently.