Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 1:21 PM on Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Alaska aviation safety continues improvements



By Sarah Day
Morris News Service - Alaska

JUNEAU — Federal Aviation Administration Regional Administrator Robert Lewis told Juneau Chamber of Commerce members last week that aviation safety is improving in Alaska, though data show a recent trend of decreasing numbers of plane crashes appears to have plateaued.

Lewis was at the chamber lunch to give an overview of aviation in Alaska.

"The difference between Alaska and the Lower 48 is we don't have a big road system," Lewis said. "Eighty-two percent of Alaska is available only by air. Within the state of Alaska, the state owns 256 public use airports and within the state are 700 registered airports."

Lewis addressed the unique challenges and uses of aviation Alaska has, including using medevac in remote villages and transporting high school sports teams around. He said in the spring and summer barges bring heating oil to remote places, but in colder winters sometimes those places need more oil and it has to be flown in. Those kinds of shipments and transportation aren't typical for most of the country.

Lewis also focused on Alaska's history of accidents.

He said in the early 1990s, the state was averaging 180 accidents per year — that's nearly one accident every other day. He said they averaged one fatality every nine days.

The trend line for accidents from the 1990s through today saw some jagged spikes, but overall a significant decline.

At the end of fiscal year 2010, the state recorded 93 accidents, roughly half the number of accidents in the 1990s. At the end of this fiscal year, the state recorded 95 accidents.

"We're kind of leveling out," Lewis said.

The FAA also compared the number of accidents per 100,000 flying hours. In 2003, there were 20 accidents per 100,000 flying hours, while the Lower 48 was at six. Today, Alaska sees half as many accidents, a number still above the national average.

"June, July, August and September are the highest months where we've had aviation accidents," Lewis said.

About 44 percent were in landings, 27 percent in takeoff or initial climb, and about 15 percent while cruising.

Lewis said several years ago crashes while cruising accounted for the largest number of several types of wrecks. He credits the Alaska-generated Capstone program and other safety measures as reasons why that percentage has been driven down.

That Capstone program includes utilizing GPS systems to better show terrain. In Southeast, planes are also being equipped with technology to show weather and other airplanes. Those other planes, however, must be wired into the same system.

"It became the basis for the backbone of the Next Generation system," Lewis said. "It will owe its beginning to Alaska and some of the people in this state. That technology has been proven to be very successful."

Other safety improvements include installing nearly 170 weather cameras in passes and other difficult locations so pilots can judge in advance if they should continue on.

"It seems like no matter where I go, people say weather cameras are the best thing the FAA ever did," Lewis said.

The Medallion Foundation also is helping improve safety. Organizations or pilots can improve operations to earn stars, and ultimately a shield designation. Lewis said insurance companies are now starting to offer significant discounts on insurance to companies who have earned the shield status.

Lewis said recently they've been painting landing stripes on gravel landing strips to see if it helps pilots improve landings. He said so far the response has been mostly positive. The markers are placed 100 feet apart for at least 600 feet. Lewis said one pilot called him and thanked him because he had been sure he could land within 600 feet. With those markers down, he discovered he wasn't landing within 600 feet — but within 1,000. While it didn't necessarily matter at that airport that he wasn't landing as precisely as he thought, he told Lewis he intends to take a trip to an airport where the landing limitation is 600 feet.

Lewis hopes these markers and other safety initiatives like it will help more pilots become aware of how they are landing and look to make improvements.

Lewis also gave an overview of the NextGen plan and FAA staff in Alaska. There are 1,300 FAA employees in the state, with a combined payroll of $122 million. There are 95 FAA employees in Southeast, with a combined payroll of $7.7 million.

For more information on NextGen visit faa.gov/nextgen.

Sarah Day is a reporter for the Juneau Empire.

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