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.

Comments (48)

Being a "lower 48" pilot, let me -- with all consideration and respect for their 'final frontier' mentality -- suggest that Alaska pilots publish their missions in advance of operations to respected organizations for review and approval. Maybe Alaska pilots need to 'sunset' the 'go wherever, whenever' mentality.

Posted by: Phil Derosier | August 16, 2010 3:50 AM    Report this comment

The suggestion "Alaska pilots publish their missions in advance of operations to respected organizations for review and approval." includes the word "approval" which also suggest there may be "disapproval". Like the words on cross border eAPIS replies, "cleared for departure" means that "not cleared" appears to be a government option. Who exactly has the power to say I can or I can not fly where and when I want. Who in what office can say if I will be safe or not. More official intervention will not cure continued flight into terrain. It will make another impossible hurdle to to scale when more experience and education would do more to save lives.

Posted by: Tom Corcoran | August 16, 2010 5:04 AM    Report this comment

As a 20 year Alaska Bush flying veteran and 100's of hours flying around Dillingham, I'd like to weigh in. There is no accurate weather reporting at most destinations in AK. Pilots are going to lakes, sandbars, mountain ridges or the middle of tundra 100 miles from the nearest airport. For the most part it is go check it out kind of flying and if it does not look doable turn around. Airplanes are used like pickup trucks and there are no roads going where you want to go. This pilot carrying such a high profile passenger load no doubt felt tremendous pressure to "get them there regardless of the weather". That is the dangerous "Bush Pilot" mentality behind the accident statistics and it is indemic to the Alaska bush flying population.

Posted by: Joe Baginski | August 16, 2010 8:36 AM    Report this comment

On another note altogether would Roush's approach be called ' an un-stabilized approach ', the approach that's mentioned so often in accident reports ?

Sorry to hear of the loss of an eye.

Posted by: John Phillips | August 16, 2010 10:12 AM    Report this comment

Alaska is huge. I can fly for over a 100 miles and not see any sign of civilization; not a road nor a house. You can not get to the majority of our towns by road. The only practical way to go is by air. These towns don’t have jet service into their dirt and gravel runways so it’s GA planes that provide a link to the world. We tend to use our planes like people in the lower 48 use cars. Mix in our often marginal weather, sparse reporting stations and large mountains and you have a challenge. The passes through the mountains are not straight through but tend to wind around. You start into a pass, turn a corner and the clouds go to the ground with no room to turn around. All you can do is hope that the terrain feature on the Garmin is accurate.

Posted by: Walt Larson | August 16, 2010 10:24 AM    Report this comment

I guess I'm not cut out for bush country flying. I'll stay down here in the flatlands where we can more readily choose to stay on the ground to get where we're going. Never thought I'd be so grateful to have roads...

Posted by: Brad Koehn | August 16, 2010 10:32 AM    Report this comment

The bush pilot syndrome is no different than the airline pilot syndrome or the ag pilot syndrome in that there is a group of attitudes, habits and procedures commonly used to get the job done whatever that is. I read that the pilot flew for the airlines for 28 years. Possibly in this accident he used his airline flying habits, attitudes and procedures and tried to fly IFR if only for a few minutes to clear the ridge? Flying IFR in an airline environment is natural and normal while scud running in the Bush it's a killer.

Posted by: Bob Reinaker | August 16, 2010 10:52 AM    Report this comment

Got to get there. Important people on board.

Better the pilot have my wussy attitude and turnaround when conditions got bad (no doubt that happened before they crashed) and live to fly another day.

Posted by: Ron Lee | August 16, 2010 11:01 AM    Report this comment

Three extended trips from FL in our 182 to AK, Yukon, Northwest Territories, AK Highway, Trench, Copper River,Inland Passage to lower 48,etc, good weather, miserable weather. Airplanes are life blood of communication in Alaska. Don't claim to be bush pilot qualified (far from it). Not Alaska flying expert. But, someone who hasn't flown AK can not appreciate vast nature of country and varied and changing weather phenomia. Weather-really only good way in most instances is go take a look, or stay on the ground. If you go take a look you then need to have the courage to turn around and go back if aint good enough or it looks like it might get "not good enough." It can quickly. Seen some dangerous things. I've seen more questionable things around Venice in clear blue & 22. Mostly comes down to guts to slow down, turn around, no go. Hard to do sometimes but critical here in the lower 48 or AK. Me-I can't imagine me flying AK without GPS + moving map w/terrain. Last trip made with synthetic vision. Good but does not have ever bump that could bite if too low. Knew that. Did not rely on it in marginal conditions. Great aide along with good terrain on G1000. Alaska is vast, weather finicky & changeable. Any central approval or disapproval would mean no one ever flew. Always comes back to PIC taking command & exercising responsibilities of command.

Posted by: Paul Hollowell | August 16, 2010 11:17 AM    Report this comment

I have spent my vacation up north (Canada and Alaska) since the late 90's. A "lower 48" approach to flying results in getting there so unpredictably that airplanes become a totally impractical way to travel. Living up north is more dangerous in many ways--the Inuit always had a tenuous hold on life, and accepted they might starve any year or die in an accident. Airplanes are just the latest twist in the picture to the people who live up there. People from the lower 48 have a different risk tolerance, but may not realize their pilot is flying by Alaska rules and attitudes. NE Canada at least has flat terrain and lakes everywhere, so you're OK in a float plane, though not so comforting in my wheeled 182. 600 foot ceilings with 5 miles of visibility is considered good VFR weather, and if it deteriorates, you land on a lake and wait--but you don't cancel the mission, as suggested by several readers.

Posted by: David Chuljian | August 16, 2010 11:19 AM    Report this comment

Terry Smith was one of the most highly qualified pilots around. He retired from a career with Alaska Airlines and was highly skilled in flying GA aircraft in Alaska's bush. He was a member of the Alaska Aviation Safety Foundation, a board member I think. He was very cautious and safety minded, he did not have "bush pilot syndrome". The plane he was flying was equipped with practically every instrument known to man. We don't know what went wrong and we may never know, that may mostly depend on what the survivors remember. The conditions up here change very fast. I have started a takeoff roll with 2000 foot ceilings and at lift off have had to do a 180 and get on my GPS to get back to the runway because the ceiling dropped that far that fast. On a side note the "bush pilot syndrome" pretty much died out when aircraft got so expensive and insurance rates went out of sight, but there are always some exceptions. Terry Smith was not one of them.

Posted by: Duane Hallman | August 16, 2010 11:34 AM    Report this comment

Mr. Hallman: your note is the first solid piece of reporting I've seen reference this accident (and I'm certain I'm not alone). Thank you.

Posted by: Phil Derosier | August 16, 2010 11:59 AM    Report this comment

anybody know for sure how much time Terry Smith had in the area and how much time in the a/c?

Posted by: Bob Reinaker | August 16, 2010 1:28 PM    Report this comment

anybody know for sure how much time Terry Smith had in the area and how much time in the a/c?

Posted by: Bob Reinaker | August 16, 2010 1:36 PM    Report this comment

Important people on board. Got to get there. If that be the case (not sure it is)then how is it different from the Airbus in Russia with the Polish President on board.

Posted by: Bill Scott | August 16, 2010 5:27 PM    Report this comment

The overwhelming majority of Bush Pilots in Alaska do not fly IFR, therefore under the clouds and thru the passes is required to get to their VFR only destination. With WAAS GPS many could be reached if approaches were devised especially those near the ocean or near large areas of flat land. Alaska in the past had special rules for many aircraft operations, is it feasible to improve safety with IFR approaches.

Posted by: Don Senter | August 16, 2010 8:50 PM    Report this comment

First off, everyone seems to assume that this was continued VFR into IMC. While that is one scenario, how about pilot incapacitation? Look in the NTSB photos and you'll see lower terrain off to the side of the hill that the Otter ran into. Having met the pilot, I have a real hard time believing that he flew into a cloud and then into the hill. He was very safety conscious and very experienced. His experience was not only 737s, but lots of Alaskan GA. You can rule out get-there-itis also because he canceled the morning flight because he had been out by himself and the turbulence was so bad, he knew he would have some sick passengers. He spoke with his wife, also a pilot, just before the flight and was not concerned about it. Another pilot flying in the same area at the same time reported adequate ceilings for that route. Given all of that, I just don't buy VFR into IMC.

Posted by: Ross Oliver | August 16, 2010 10:03 PM    Report this comment

A few comments about Alaska flying in general are in order. One is that tourists tend to come up here from the Lower 48 and kill themselves. Last year, half of the fatal accidents were by Lower 48 pilots, and that was not an isolated phenomenon. Paul Bertorelli notes that Alaska's accident rate is higher than the Lower 48's, but one needs to realize that an awful lot of those are "fender benders" due to off airport operations. Just peruse the NTSB reports and you'll see what I mean. While I do not regularly see Alaska's fatal accident rate published (nor do I know where to find it), I have seen national articles note that it is lower than the national average. IFR ops have also been mentioned, but small GA aircraft are not suited to that mission in AK. High MEAs and icing at low levels any time of the year make IFR for small GA aircraft a risky proposition. It's a different world up here with the terrain, weather and weather reporting (or lack thereof), but I think Alaskan pilots generally manage the risks well. Unfortunately, this has been a bad month with one very high profile accident included in the mix.

Posted by: Ross Oliver | August 16, 2010 10:10 PM    Report this comment

Ted Stevens was instrumental in getting us the Capstone equipment. I was a pilot in Bethel when that came out and it was great for the time. At that time a terrain moving map was almost unheard of, and the traffic was great to have. The Otter was not equipped with ADS-B, but may have had a terrain display with a 430 or 530 or something. I currently fly King Air B200's for medivac all over the state, and unbelievably we don't have a terrain display, even though most of the fleet has either a 430 or 530 Garmin. Most of our flying is IFR, but we often use the nearest approach and go VFR to the destination which doesn't have an approach. Like someone above said, it seems crazy that we don't all have synthetic vision or something similar now that it's available.

Posted by: Dirk Bowen | August 17, 2010 1:19 AM    Report this comment

Accident rates in Alaska have improved in recent years. Latest data indicates about 13/100,000 overall, versus 5.8/100,000 for the rest of the U.S. The fatal rate in Alaska is 1.35 vs 1.12 for the entire U.S.

It may be true that most Alaska accidents are "fender benders" but that's true everywhere, so it's fair that we are making a level comparison here. I don't know if half the accidents involve pilots from out of the state, but I wouldn't doubt it.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 17, 2010 7:01 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for the Alaskan rates broken out. Where did you find them?

My point about the "fender bender" type accidents was aimed more toward the fact that they are from off-airport opersations, something fairly unique to Alaska.

Posted by: Ross Oliver | August 17, 2010 8:09 AM    Report this comment

As a sometime tourist pilot to Alaska I would be interested to see if "outside" pilots contributed more to the accident rate. Outside, inside, any pilot has to adjust his flying and go no go to the environmental conditions. Of course it is probably premature to say that weather was a significant factor in this accident.

Posted by: Paul Hollowell | August 17, 2010 11:57 AM    Report this comment

Idaho's back country airstrips have similar flying to what you see in Alaska--at least, the mountainous parts of Alaska. They also have a fairly high accident rate; Fish Lake, for example, has several airplanes in it. The weather tends to favor the high, hot, and heavy type of accident but there are also CFIT events. It's a great place to go with a local instructor/mountain flying school and get an idea of what you'll face in Alaska. And if you bend airplane parts, you're usually only 45 minutes by air from civilization, often with other pilots around for transport. The crash photos were confusing, all right, didn't look like typical CFIT from VFR into IMC.

Posted by: David Chuljian | August 17, 2010 3:01 PM    Report this comment

Out of due respect for the Pilot involved and his record as a professional pilot in an area that most of of the people who have made comments here have only seen on TV, i find the vast majority of these comments have very little or no positive input to the actual situation. I found out while training as a pilot that i leaned a lot more by listening to a person who KNEW what they were talking about along with having EXPERIENCED the actual situation they were talking to me about. Speculation and opinion is mere hanger talk and can at times be very helpful. In the long run given who the pilot was and his record im assured it will be found he had no options but the one he took. Our prayers go to his family

Posted by: Chuck Raymond | August 18, 2010 11:27 AM    Report this comment

Accidents states quoted above are from AOPA Air Safety Foundation.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 18, 2010 11:40 AM    Report this comment

remember the only flight that counts is the one you are on

Posted by: Bob Reinaker | August 18, 2010 12:21 PM    Report this comment

Terry Smith had 29,000 hrs according to the papers but the only one of interest to this discussion is the last one

Posted by: Bob Reinaker | August 18, 2010 12:26 PM    Report this comment

This crash has been noted here in New Zealand where Terry Smith and his wife have done a fair bit of recreational flying in their PA-18 in recent years. He will be missed.

A couple of comments on a possible aspect. Roger Seiler, who grew up in that part of Alaska, has written a thoughtful piece on www.leadersoft.com/files/crashhypothesis.doc in the hopes that it isn't just passed off as another pilot error. And as the front seat passenger admits being asleep at the time, there's also the possibility of organophosphate contamination, not unknown with turbine engines. With the high-profile passengers involved the NTSB is sure to be thorough.

Posted by: John King | August 18, 2010 4:04 PM    Report this comment

This crash has been noted here in New Zealand where Terry Smith and his wife have done a fair bit of recreational flying in their PA-18 in recent years. He will be missed.

A couple of comments on a possible aspect. Roger Seiler, who grew up in that part of Alaska, has written a thoughtful piece on www.leadersoft.com/files/crashhypothesis.doc in the hopes that it isn't just passed off as another pilot error. And as the front seat passenger admits being asleep at the time, there's also the possibility of organophosphate contamination, not unknown with turbine engines. With the high-profile passengers involved the NTSB is sure to be thorough.

Posted by: John King | August 18, 2010 4:04 PM    Report this comment

The laws apply to Alaska just like to the lower 48. VFR into IFR is ILLEGAL. Furthermore VFR into mountainous IFR is insane. I'm tired of bad pilot behavior killing people and making aviation dangerous.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | August 23, 2010 11:24 AM    Report this comment

After reading a week's worth of responses, I went back and re-read Paul's remarks. He said it all and the last line summed it up 100%. I can only add that in AK its the cost of doing business.

Posted by: John Phillips | August 23, 2010 11:42 AM    Report this comment

I don't think VFR into IMC is even being speculated on at this point, and the photos of the crash aren't consistent with that scenario. I would point out that VFR into IMC isn't inherently dangerous anyway; having someone on the ground is essentially only there to coordinate use of the airspace and avoid conflicts. Sections of Canada have no airspace control and private GPS approaches as the only way to get down. But again, the more I see of this, the less it looks like a CFIT-IMC accident.

Posted by: David Chuljian | August 23, 2010 11:56 AM    Report this comment

There was no flight plan, into mountainous terrain, and into weather so bad that search was delayed. Just how many bad decisions need to be made by a COMMERCIAL flight operator before you really start to wonder?

Posted by: Mark Fraser | August 23, 2010 1:19 PM    Report this comment

Paul B says in his 2nd paragraph- "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. "

I am curious why David Chuljian doesn't see it this way?

And why VFR into IMC isn't inherently dangerous?

Posted by: Bob Reinaker | August 23, 2010 2:01 PM    Report this comment

Read the URL in my post. The fact that the aircraft was well off course in a route flown routinely by the pilot makes me suspicious; and the aircraft was 90 degrees to the desired course, flying into rising terrain with lower terrain ahead and to the right. If the plane were on course, or in unfamiliar territory, I would think differently. I have flown low weather the same route on a daily basis in the past, and at some point you know every outcropping, tree clump, shoreline indentation, etc. This is even more true of a 29000 hour pilot in Alaska. As to whether VFR into IMC is inherently dangerous--having someone on the ground has nothing to do with the safety of your IFR/IMC flight. As I stated, in parts of Canada some IFR flights are made without the benefit of any ATC at all, it's SID & a GPS approach without contacting Center most of the flight. Taking off into a low overcast with a telephone clearance is essentially VFR into IMC, and we do it all the time. Flying under a 300 foot overcast and following the river is dangerous; climbing into the overcast on a known route is not necessarily dangerous, although you'd better have a plan that includes route, approach, alternates, and folks who know all of the above. Is it something I do on a regular basis? Of course not, I can get my clarance on a cell phone--but you can't at Arviat. My point was that the danger is from the low flying VFR portion, not the decision to go into the clouds and climb away from terrain.

Posted by: David Chuljian | August 23, 2010 2:38 PM    Report this comment

To me it sounds like a classic "scud run" around weather. And yes, you do SLOW DOWN a lot when you yank back and try to out climb a mountain after seeing the trees get visible through the mist....

Posted by: Mark Fraser | August 23, 2010 2:52 PM    Report this comment

David, I must be missing something. I don't see a URL in any of your posts.Can you add it in?

My point was that the wreckage looks like other climbing CFITs I have seen in small aircraft, whether that was the cause or not. A single-engine turbine Otter cruises at 140 knots and climbs at 90 or 100. If that airplane had impacted at 140 knots, I doubt it would be as whole as it was, despite the Otter's hell-for-strong construction.

We'll see, maybe, when the investigation is done.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 23, 2010 3:24 PM    Report this comment

One of the participants here, mentioned organophosphates. That sounds to me like Parathion or other highly toxic pesticides. Was the accident aircraft used for dispensing such pesticides for the purpose of mosquito control?

And now, I'd like to submit an idea for aircraft flying in Alaska. A while back Vertiflite magazine (quarterly publication of the American Helicopter Society) had an article on 94 GHz radar to enable helicopters to land safely when rotor downwash causes clouds of dust to arise. Perhaps said system could help Alaska pilots avoid collisions with terrain while scud-running. I won't pass judgement on scud running, as in Alaska it seems to be often the only way for pilots to reach their destinations.

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