The plane crash that killed former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens and four other people adds to a deadly legacy in a state dependent on small aircraft and filled with aviation hazards including mountains, fog and ice.
The Aug. 9 accident involving a single-engine turboprop was at least the fourth with fatalities in Alaska since June 1. Stevens himself survived an Alaska crash in December 1978 in which his first wife, Ann, and four others perished.
“Alaska is a completely different world for aviation,” said John Nance, a retired Air Force pilot and Alaska Airlines Inc. captain who is now an industry consultant in Seattle. “Conditions are more harsh, the facilities are fewer and farther between, and the large population of pilots means a completely different system of governance up there.”
The state’s fourth-place ranking in U.S. general-aviation accidents since 2000 shows Alaska’s reliance on light planes and helicopters. National Transportation Safety Board data show Alaska’s total of 957 trailing only California, Florida and Texas, all of which are at least 27 times larger by population.
Stevens’s death put him on a roster of prominent Alaska air-crash victims that includes U.S. House Majority Leader Hale Boggs of Louisiana, a Democrat who died on a campaign flight with Alaska Representative Nick Begich in 1972, and humorist Will Rogers and aviator Wiley Post, who were killed in 1935.
Glaciers, fiords and arctic winters make ground travel between many points dangerous or impossible in a state that had only 4,897 miles of paved roads in 2009, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
“Airplanes basically are our trucks,” said Daniel Bailey, a professional photographer and licensed pilot in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. “Anytime you send a vehicle out in the world, whether a truck on the highway or a plane in the air, there’s going to be a percentage of them that crash. There are more planes here, because that’s what we have.”
The state has 10,960 registered active pilots, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. That compares with 10,731 in Massachusetts, whose population is more than nine times that of Alaska’s.
“That’s what makes aviation different up here,” said Mark Heritage, chief flight instructor at Land & Sea Aviation Alaska in Anchorage. “It’s a part of life. People just don’t get anywhere or do anything in the bush without airplanes. Most of the people who fly up here know the risks.”
Alaska’s elevation ranges from sea level to about 20,320 feet (6,194 meters) at Mount McKinley, the tallest U.S. peak. Moisture fed by wind currents from the Gulf of Alaska, Arctic Ocean and Pacific Ocean can create fog and clouds that obscure the terrain, or icing that robs planes of lift.
NTSB investigators are still probing what caused the crash of the DeHavilland DHC-3T carrying Stevens, 86, northwest of Aleknagik.
Sean O’Keefe, chief executive officer of North American operations for European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co., and his son, Kevin, survived. O’Keefe is a former administrator for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The other survivors were William Phillips Jr., 13, and Jim Morhard of Alexandria, Virginia, the Alaska State Troopers said. The additional victims were pilot Theron “Terry” Smith, 62, of Eagle River, Alaska; William Phillips Sr.; and Dana Tindall, 48, and Corey Tindall, 16, both of Anchorage, the agency said.
On Aug. 1, the crash of a twin-engine Fairchild C-123 cargo plane in Denali National Park killed three people, and a C-17 transport crash at Elmendorf Air Force Base at Anchorage July 29 killed four crew members. A child was killed and four people injured June 1 when a Cessna 206 crashed in Anchorage.
Alaskan air traffic controllers formally adopted a new satellite-based navigation system in June designed to give pilots precise position readings on aircraft and improve bad- weather awareness.
During a test period from 1999 through 2006, the fatal accident rate was cut in half among aircraft in Alaska equipped to use the system, the FAA said. A nationwide rollout is planned by 2013.
Most Alaska runways are gravel, and many aren’t lighted. On its website, the state transportation department reminds pilots about deceptive entrances to mountain passes, dead-end box canyons, the risk of year-round icing and the need for accurate fuel planning with airports far apart.
Alaska’s rugged landscape and rapid weather changes require pilots in the state to use extra caution, said Heritage, the flight instructor.
“A single guy in a small airplane, he’s really got to be looking at his own abilities and how far he’s willing to go,” he said.
The terrain near the crash site of the Stevens plane is “fairly mountainous” and includes the Lake Clark Pass, which can “fog up really quick,” Heritage said. While pilots can check FAA real-time camera images of the area before a flight, conditions can change by the time they arrive, he said.
“You just have to really pay attention to what’s going on before you decide to go flying,” Heritage said.