For anyone who wants evidence that flying in Alaska is a dangerous profession, fatality figures released by a federal health and safety office last week should suffice.
Each year, professional pilots in Alaska are more than four times as likely to die in a crash than their Lower 48 counterparts, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Alaska Field Station.
Another way of looking at it: Alaska professional pilots, over a 30-year career, face an 11 percent chance of dying. Professional pilots in the 49 other states face a 2.5 percent chance. Both figures are far above the overall fatality rate for all U.S. workers, which is 0.14 percent, the institute said.
Institute health and safety specialist Jan Manwaring and epidemiologist Diana Bensyl presented the figures Wednesday at a meeting of the Alaska Safety Advisory Council.
"We've always known in various other ways that flying in Alaska is more dangerous," Bensyl said. "These figures just let us analyze this issue in a new way, from a new perspective."
Jim LaBelle, chief of the National Transportation Safety Board in Alaska, said the numbers and what they say about flying in Alaska are nothing new to his office, "but this is a new and startling way of looking at them. The rates haven't gone up by any great extent, but they haven't gone down either.
"Unfortunately, it's business as usual."
The institute examined aircraft accident records in Alaska from 1990 through 1998. The agency counted 100 professional pilot deaths in that time, an average of 11 a year.
The researchers' findings will be featured during the Governor's Safety and Health Conference next March in Anchorage.
Pilots aren't the only ones who should be concerned. Participating in the researchers' presentation next spring will be two men with lots of information on how passengers can protect themselves from dying in crashes. That information is relevant because Alaska has 76 times more commuter airline flights per capita than the rest of the nation, according to a 1995 report from the National Transportation Safety Board.
Bart Stone is the training and standardization manager for the Office of Aircraft Services with the U.S. Department of Interior. He gives talks about how passengers can take control of their destinies when boarding aircraft, up to and including how to "grab the stick" if the pilot becomes unable to fly.
"I talk about passengers demanding their rights," Stone said. "You need to set your own personal minimums. If you're the paying customer and you get that 'pinch' in your stomach, you need to start demanding."
For example, demanding clear and understandable preflight briefings, Stone said. Demanding to know how doors and windows work and where the survival bag is and how to use it. Demanding to know how to work the radio and emergency locator transmitter in case there's trouble. Demanding that the pilot turn the airplane around if you don't like the conditions you're heading into.
"For example, if you see the pilot is leaning forward, you're in trouble," Stone said. "If he's got to lean forward to see through the weather, that's when you should take command and tell him to turn around."
Members of the Alaska Air Carriers Association contacted last week didn't disagree with most of Stone's recommendations.
"You keep your passengers happy, and they'll be flying with you the next week," said association member Larry Chenaille, owner of Larry's Flying Service in Fairbanks. "The problem sometimes is the passenger saying, 'I'd rather fly with Brand X. They'll go anywhere, anytime.' That passenger attitude doesn't help us at all."
"I think if he's talking about a small air taxi operation, that's a reasonable request," said association member Jim Wilson of Coastal Helicopters in Juneau. "We've done it ourselves. You explain to the customer that we can get them where they want to go but on that particular day it'll be a little bumpy. And in the middle of the flight, they decide, 'I can go another day.' We turn around, you bet."
But in the case of larger, scheduled passenger flights, Wilson and others said, responsibility for safety lies with the company and its pilots. And one nervous passenger out of a dozen or more who wants a flight turned around will probably have to trust the pilot.
And the association's executive director, Kim Ross, worried that Stone gives passengers the impression that they are as qualified to be weather observers as a trained pilot.
"Instead I think he should be concentrating on the ideas of passengers asking questions about the (company's) safety record, the pilot's certification and experience," Ross said. "And telling passengers that they shouldn't be coercing pilots to fly into unsafe situations."
The other speaker will be Brian Horner, owner of LTR Training Systems in Anchorage. For 16 years, Horner's company has taught survival training courses for corporate and government employees and individuals. He will give a thumbnail example of his company's two-day training course in surviving an aircraft disaster.
"We give people an idea of what happens at the moment of decision," Horner said. "And that you don't have to die in a crash."
Horner's training session includes putting students in crash simulations, including submersion of a mock fuselage in a pool. Students are also taken to the woods for a few hours of simulated crash-scene survival techniques.
"We teach you how to make a mukluk out of a seat cushion," Horner said.
For more information about the conference, call 1-907-269-4922. On the Internet, information is available at www.labor.state.ak.us/lss/agsc/agsc.htm.
* Reporter Larry Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.