NTSB Calls For Specific Safety Mandates For Ketchikan Air Tours


Calling on the FAA to take direct regulatory action, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chair Jennifer Homendy said today (Nov. 29), “There have been too many air tour tragedies in Ketchikan, [Alaska], a place with unique—but well-understood—safety hazards that endanger the lives of pilots and passengers alike. Unless the FAA acts swiftly, experience tells us to expect even more heartbreak and preventable loss of life.”

The NTSB is requesting special regulations, specific to Ketchikan, mandating more conservative flight visibility minimums and enhanced weather training for air tour pilots operating in the region. In a report issued today and available at this link on the NTSB website, the board cited seven fatal air tour accidents in and around Ketchikan in the past 15 years. They resulted in 31 fatalities and another 13 serious injuries, and “highlighted the need for a more robust approach to reduce the risks to air tour passengers and the pilots flying them,” according to the report.

Citing the particularly dangerous combination of “a rapidly changing weather environment and mountainous terrain” in the region, the board recommended that the FAA issue special federal aviation regulations (SFARs) that it said have proved effective in reducing fatal air tour accidents in other geographic regions with area-specific operational hazards, such as the Grand Canyon and Hawaii. Those SFARs included mandating minimum flight altitudes, enhanced safety-equipment requirements and airspace limitations.

Homendy said, “Special federal aviation regulations have effectively reduced air-tour accidents in other areas, saving untold lives. We need the same safety leadership now—before there’s yet another tragedy in Ketchikan.”

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Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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  1. 31 people died in 15years… in that remote area of the world… I find that a very good record considering air travel is just about required in Alaska.

  2. Richard G, I’d like to know the Ketchikan accident *rate* and compare it to other tour operations in order to more accurately determine the risk in Ketchikan.

    • Saved me typing it – this was my immediate reaction. Or – “Context with other parts of the world is required”

    • Indeed. Unless we know fatalities per flight hour, any number is meaningless. Also, what are the most common accidents? Mid air collisions or inadvertent IMC? Those require very different sorts of rules to prevent.

  3. If you are the passenger who dies, the rate is 100%. The Hudson River Part 93, Grand Canyon Part 93, Valparaiso Part 93 SFARs — they all serve their purpose with little burden.

    Especially in Ketchikan were unsuspecting tourists expect a high level of safety. Look at the docket for ANC15MA041 Jun 25, 2015 and read the “Personal Electronic Devices and Cameras – Group Chairman’s Factual Report” and look at the pictures. If you were in the back row and your pilot was flying, it should be plenty advocate for SFARs.

  4. A mindset that 31 fatalities in 15 years is an acceptable “rate” is absurd. Proper risk management, and proper system safety, would dictate (just the opposite of what has been going on) a higher level of safety awareness in remote areas such as Alaska. More caution vs less caution.

    Failing to plan is a plan to fail. On the surface it appears that the air tour operators, in their quest for revenues, didn’t plan very well. They failed to manage safety for themselves. Now, and sadly, they get big brother to do it for them. And……..now all of the other special interest groups such as NOAA, Green Peace, etc. will get a voice in the final SFAR.

    God bless.

  5. The Grand Canyon & Hudson River SFARs may not have imposed much burden on the operators, but they primarily addressed traffic concerns – routing, etc. In Ketchikan the primary factor for regulation will be weather and the effect will be shutting down some number of operations that otherwise would be flown. That’s a definite burden both on the operators and on the tourists who look forward to these flights during their short time visiting.

    I don’t know the comparative statistics on these Alaska tours vs. other flightseeing operations but subjectively the risk seems acceptable and over the years our family has flown on a variety of them. Accidents of this type invariably draw a lot of “there is no such thing as too much safety” and “even one death is unacceptable” type comment. I think we all can understand the emotion behind these but taken literally they are obviously nonsensical. Life involves tradeoffs & compromises both on the personal and societal level.

    • I agree. I visited Alaska a few years ago and yes I had concerns about the air tour that my wife booked. Using what knowledge I have I monitored local weather to make sure we did not get into a situation we did not belong in. Fortunately the operator we chose first delayed then switched to a different flight due to winds and cloud cover not conducive to a glacier landing. That operator’s pilot was very professional and did not do anything that I would have considered unsafe.

      I am not going to get into the safety debate in Alaska. What I am betting on is that Ms Homendy has never been to Anchorage and seen the Alaska air museum at Lake Hood.
      If she had she would have seen the exhibit on how the local flight operator’s think of heavy handed FAA decrees from Washington DC. If you try to put lower 48 standards in Alaska, you might as well ground all flights in Alaska. With the lack of roads in most of Alaska, general aviation is the only way to get around. And yes even the late Senator Ted Stevens became a victim of a GA crash, even though prior to his accident was a big supporter of GA operations in Alaska. These things are fact of life in Alaska. If you want pt121 safety standards, then stick to the airlines and to the few major airports in Alaska. If you do you will miss experiencing what Alaska is all about.

    • Maybe it was just the internet buzz at the time but I thought the Grand Canyon SFAR, and associated aircraft requirements, was mainly designed to reduce aircraft noise ground footprint over the canyon and canyon rim. Was the primary driver of the rules an unacceptable accident rate by tour operators?

      • In 1956 a DC-7 and a Super Connie collided over the Grand Canyon, killing 128. I’ve heard that crash was the impetus for the SFARs, but the Wikipedia article doesn’t say so.
        It did create a push to improve ATC services and procedures, which led to the creation of the FAA.

    • Good points. Keep in mind the independence of the NTSB and their mission is to look past costs and define safety. It is up to the FAA to do cost-benefit and post-hoc debate (like this forum).

      One often quoted example was after TWA800 the NTSB recommended non-exploding fuel tanks. It was impossible at the time but still recommended.

  6. Feels like click bait to me. Like most of life today it’s about being seen. Selling emotion as a poor substitute for clear, kind, thinking. With many others I’d have to see the comparisons. Then I’d rather see a disclosure ruling – sort of like that on cigarette packs: “Tourism flights in this area are X percent more dangerous than the average.” Then fully grown adults can make their own decisions and not have some draconian governmental bureaucratic rule make it for them.

    • I’d also publicly post minimums:

      No tours when:
      Visibility is less that X
      Cloud deck lower than Y

      That could relieve some pilot pressure to “go” and, might allow a pause for a passenger when visibly is “poor” and clouds are “low”.

  7. I agree with Rick H. However, I’d word it differently. Human brains have difficulty translating percentages into reality. So something along the lines of “when you fly part 121, expect to be seriously injured one out of every X times you fly. When you fly this tourist route, expect to be injured one out of every Y times you fly.” Then using the same form, repeat the warning, except replace the word injured with the word die.

  8. As for air tours stay away from them.Poor or little experience if the pilot goes IIMC(Hawaii),hot dog pilots(Arizona),poor maintiance( Pearl Harbor Jet Ranger crash),Beaver crash in Washington.

  9. Took a Beaver flight out of Ketchikan and a turbine Otter out of Juneau when on tour, well turned out aircraft, as a professional pilot myself was most impressed with the standards, have to say both were on gin clear days though, more than appreciate the weather (bad) that can be experienced.