It's not the bitter cold, or the freezing ice, or the chronic clouds that make flying in Alaska so different from everywhere else. It's not even the six months of murky darkness, when the arctic sun barely creeps above the gray horizon.
It's the emptiness.
"You can fly for miles and miles, hours and hours, and there is nothing out there," says Patrick Thurston, director of operations at Hageland Aviation Services, based at Anchorage International Airport. "Pilots everywhere have weather and night flying to deal with, but there's nothing like this in the Lower 48. There are great distances, no roads, and few people. You look down from the cockpit, and there are no lights, no cities or towns. Nothing."
Nothing means no navaids, no radar, no reliable weather reports, sometimes no communications, unless you catch an airliner passing overhead. It means runways are few and far between, and even then, most are short and unpaved -- 90 percent of the airports in southwest Alaska have gravel or dirt runways, and two-thirds are less than 3,000 feet long. It means the ground systems needed to fly safe instrument approaches are scarce. Airport crews are rarely on duty to report runway conditions or test for braking. Weather stations are 100 miles or more apart. And the primeval masses of mountains that lurk within the clouds and the dark are unmarked by lights or radio aids.
That's why Thurston is happy to say that just about all of his 32 aircraft, from Cessna 172s to Caravans to Beech 1900s, take part in FAA's Capstone Safety Program. "We're the leader, as far as I know, in participation," Thurston told me, during a visit to Anchorage in August. His fleet runs a regular schedule to airfields all over western Alaska, to Nome and Barrow, to Aniak and Uklakleet, serving dozens of tiny rural communities that depend on aviation for connections to the world. "Capstone has made an immense difference," he said. "Our pilots now can accurately assess where they are, and that builds confidence. And that confidence is essential."
That level of confidence from pilots and operators was a long time coming. Alaska spans 2,000 miles from east to west and 1,100 miles north to south, encompassing more than 650,000 square miles. It's one-fifth the size of the entire Lower 48 states, larger than the next three largest states combined. It's sparsely populated, with an average of one person per square mile, while the rest of the country averages about 70.
Toss in wide tracts of glacial ice, mountain ranges, countless peaks above 10,000 feet, and variable weather. The coastal regions frequently bust VFR minimums, and pilots face flat-light and white-out conditions, fog, and ice fog. Icing levels are low, and darkness reigns for half the year. Even the long days of summer, which might seem a welcome respite, cause stress, because of the pressure on pilots and operators to make hay in all that sunshine.
Despite the challenging conditions, aviation is Alaska's lifeline. Everything that in the Lower 48 might move by truck or rail, in Alaska goes by air. Airplanes carry groceries, medicines, mail, building materials, livestock, and fuel. Fresh fish fill cargo bays at remote villages, bound for market. Medical evacuation flights are commonplace. Airplanes substitute for school buses in remote villages.
The dependence on aviation exerts pressure on the system to perform on-time and despite adverse weather. The absence of ground options for travelers also means a high dependence on commuter airlines, many of which operate single-engine, single-pilot VFR aircraft. The state has six times as many pilots, 14 times as many aircraft, and 76 times as many commuter flights per capita as the rest of the U.S. It also has a notoriously grim safety record.
"We've all lost friends up here," Felix Maguire told me, as we talked on the ramp at Anchorage International Airport on a sunny August morning. Maguire, a former RAF pilot, recently retired from his corporate job flying a Citation jet. Of the commercial pilots who spend a 30-year career flying in Alaska, over 11 percent will perish in their aircraft, the FAA says. That compares to 2.5 percent of commercial pilots in the other 49 states. "We didn't want to just form another committee, and file another report that would gather dust on a shelf," Maguire said. "We had to do something." Everybody wanted action, everybody needed to see results.
The momentum for change got a kickstart from a 1995 NTSB study that raised a bunch of red flags about aviation safety in Alaska. (Click here for the 4 Mb report as an Adobe Acrobat PDF file.) "The safety board's review of commuter airline, air taxi, and general aviation accidents in Alaska highlighted two accident types of major consequence: accidents during takeoff and landing, and accidents related to flying on visual flight rules into instrument meteorological conditions," the study said. The VFR-into-IMC flights caused the most fatalities, and were the leading safety problem for Alaska, the NTSB concluded.
"Underlying this problem," the NTSB said, "is the dependence of Alaskan commuter and air-taxi operations on VFR operations." And underlying that problem was the state's lack of infrastructure to support IFR flight. The NTSB named a long list of inadequacies: not enough navaid coverage; insufficient approach procedures at airports; and poor voice and radar capabilities for air traffic control. To create a safer system, Alaska should incorporate GPS and satellite technology to enhance its low-altitude IFR system, the NTSB said.
Enter the Capstone program. "We wanted to do something that would really benefit these operators," says John Hallinan, program manager at the FAA's Anchorage office. "Not something like the carnival comes to town, then poof, they're gone, and there's nothing left but popcorn sacks and wagon tracks." To achieve that real benefit, the FAA worked to build a partnership with the aviation industry. Maguire, a director of the Alaska Airmen's Association, joined the effort. So did AOPA, the Alaska Air Carriers Association, the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), some avionics manufacturers, the U.S. Air Force, and more.
In its first phase, starting in 1999, Capstone installed advanced avionics equipment in 200 aircraft, mainly commuter, air taxi, and cargo carriers serving the Bethel aviation hub in a remote region of Southwest Alaska known as the Yukon-Kuskokwim (YK) Delta. Bethel -- one of the largest communities in Western Alaska, with about 6,000 residents -- lies 400 miles west of Anchorage. It serves as an administrative and transportation hub for 56 villages in the YK Delta.
The Capstone equipment costs the operators nothing. A cockpit multi-function display, using GPS data and a moving map, shows pilots their location and graphically displays nearby terrain, other aircraft, and weather. Capstone also placed 11 small ground units -- each no bigger than a breadbox -- in the region to broadcast weather and flight information and provide radar-like surveillance of planes equipped with the new avionics. UAA tested the system and trained pilots to use it.
For pilots used to flying semi-blind, Capstone meant the difference between having to guess where they were -- and where the mountains and other airplanes might be -- and knowing their precise location relative to both traffic and terrain. For operators back at the home airport, it meant they could follow a flight from takeoff to landing, knowing exactly where their aircraft were at any point in time.
On the edge of the sprawling Anchorage airfield, Northern Air Cargo parks a fleet of aircraft, including an aged DC-6. Chief pilot Mike Moore led me up the rickety crew stairs for a look into the cramped, weathered cockpit. This airplane is all business, its well-worn metal showing 50 years of use. "Airplanes are the cars and trucks of Alaska," said Moore. "We carry everything that moves ... horses, cars, telephone poles, tons of fresh fish, drill rigs." Aft of the cockpit, behind a small door in a sturdy bulkhead, the cavernous cargo bay carries up to 28,000 pounds of payload.
Up front, the ancient half-moon yokes are surrounded by gauges and switches and dials crammed into every speck of panel and ceiling and bulkhead. Pilots spend countless hours here, flying past the Northern Lights in an Alaskan winter, or gazing out on endless mountains during the long summer days. It's chilling to imagine: The vast empty landscape below, the infinite stars in a cold night sky, the dim cockpit lights and the spinning props the only sign of life. The sturdy airplane with its four huge recips can operate in temperatures down to 45 below, Moore says, with the certainty of someone who's been there to confirm it.
Tucked into a corner of the panel by the co-pilot's seat is a small glass multi-function display -- the Capstone screen -- which shows weather, traffic, and terrain. The system provides an "increased comfort level" to his pilots, Moore said. "It's hard to quantify the safety impact. But Capstone provides excellent situational awareness for the flight crews, and helps us to cope with the limited weather reporting and limited airport facilities. We're pretty excited about it. There's been a lot of cooperative effort between the FAA and the industry to make this happen. It took a lot of motivated people on all fronts."
An FAA report released in May 2004 (550 Kb PDF file here) compiled the results of all that motivated effort: "Capstone-equipped aircraft have had a consistently lower accident rate than aircraft before Capstone and non-equipped aircraft during Capstone. From 2000 through the end of 2003 the rate of accidents for Capstone-equipped aircraft was lower by 40 percent ... Historically, the rate of Part-135 accidents within the YK Delta has been two to four times the rest of Alaska, but in 2003 the accident rate for the Delta was below the rest of the state for the first time."
Phase II is now underway, expanding the program into Southeast Alaska, where different challenges loom. The area is more mountainous than the YK Delta, and the technology is evolving to include Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) capability. The newest rendition of the equipment employs an Electronic Flight Information System built by Chelton Flight Systems. Its primary flight display features real-time 3D terrain modeling, airspeed, groundspeed, altitude, altitude above ground, and many other types of information. A second display features an aeronautical chart that includes weather data and air traffic information. The chart displays the flight plan along with terrain and traffic near the aircraft's current altitude.
The equipment will permit aircraft to fly at new lower Minimum Enroute Altitudes, thus opening 41,000 feet of airspace over 1,521 nautical miles of existing routes, the FAA says. A Special Federal Aviation Regulation permits trained pilots to use the GPS receivers as the sole means for en route navigation in Alaska. This regulation is specific to Alaska. Capstone Phase II, like Phase I, will be offered to air carriers free of charge.
Now in development is Capstone Phase III. This next step in the system will make increased use of satellites to support reliable communications when ground facilities are out of range. Phase III also will work to develop various levels of the Capstone system that would make it affordable for GA pilots to buy their own equipment. Various options are being studied, from PDA-based systems, to flat-screen laptop computers, to fully mounted displays.
For Patrick Thurston, of Hageland Air, Capstone is "a magnificent resource."Bethel has a lot of air traffic. Low visibility, mist, and clouds are common there. The routes Hageland aircraft fly are remote and challenging. "With Capstone, we can fly more efficiently and more safely," he says. "It makes a difference, day in and day out."
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