Danger land


National Transportation Safety Board investigators at the scene of a 2015 Alaska small plane crash/NTSB photo

Once again the dangerous tourist season in the north is underway with six people dead in a floatplane collision at the southern end of the Alaska Panhandle and an injured snowboarder rescued from near 13,500 feet on Mount Denali, North America’s tallest peak.

Welcome to a state with one of the highest rate of accidental deaths in the country. Blame the weather, the lack of roads and adventure sport.

Some come to the 49th state looking for danger and find it. Others just get unlucky in a land where off-road travel comes with some inherent risks.

Tip for tourists: If you want the safest Alaska vacation, fly commercially to Anchorage and rent a car or motorhome. Alaska has the seventh highest accidental death rate in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), but the seventh lowest per capital rate of motor vehicle deaths.

Driving around the wild Disneyland of the North is the safest way to see it because this isn’t the Disneyland of California, where the accidental death rate is just shy of half that of Alaska.

Big wild life

For better or worse, Alaskans themselves have come to accept accidental deaths as normal. When a snowmachine disappears into a winter storm or through spring ice and someone dies, the tragedy rates only a few paragraphs in the state’s fading newspapers and sometimes even less attention in the online world.

The state doesn’t even bother to keep a count of the all-too-common snowmachine deaths or what other states tabulate as snowmobile fatalities. What Alaskans would consider the normal dangers of spring really only make the news when the become issues related to global warming or climate change.

“Alaska Relies on Ice. What Happens When It Can’t Be Trusted?” the New York Times headlined above a story reporting five people dead after going through the ice of lakes in rivers in the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta region in March. About a half dozen more such deaths would follow in April and May, including the death of a family of three in Northwest Alaska, but attract less attention given that by that by the official start of “spring” such deaths are sadly normal.

And the last of them – early this month – unfortunately involved a young Alaskan doing what they often do, taking risks either because the risks come with living in the state or because risk-taking is the thing to do. Twenty-seven-year-old Casey Fagerstrom died while “water skipping” his snowmobile across an open lead in Golovin Bay near Nome in early May.

Skipping open water on a snowmachine is something a lot of Alaska riders take for granted given that even without global warming open water is sometimes encountered in wild Alaska in the winter.

But these are risks to which simple visitors to the state are seldom exposed.

Tourism season

Those from elsewhere – those from “Outside” as Alaskans call everywhere elsewhere – are expected to be provided some protection from Alaska dangers unless they expressly wish to avoid it. And there are those who come to Alaska expressly for the thrills of taking risks.

They range from mountaineers to whitewater river runners to backcountry hikers to self-proclaimed bear man Timothy Treadwell, who wanted to make friends of the grizzlies of Katmai National Park and Preserve.

For more than a decade, Treadwell got away with getting up close and personal with the park’s big bears before one killed and largely ate him and girlfriend  Amie Huguenard in 2002.

More than once in the years before the Californian’s death, he was rescued by Alaskans who thought his escapades in Katmai both dangerous and nuts, but they saved him anyway.

Alaskans have a certain fascination with and appreciation for the risk takers and a wealth of empathy for the unlucky, most especially those who die in the state’s all-too-regular crashes of small planes as happened again this week.

If you’ve lived in Alaska long, the odds are high that you’ve known someone or several people who died when a plane went down.  If you’ve traveled much to the unroaded part of the state, which is most of it,  the odds are high you have either been involved in an aircraft incident of some sort yourself or know someone who has survived a crash.

The U.S. Coast Guard was reporting 10 cruise-ship passengers on a day excursion to George Inlet just east of the city of Ketchikan survived the latest such incident, a mid-air collision between a six-passenger de Havilland Beaver and a 10-passenger de Havilland Otter.

Princess Cruises reported all were tourists from aboard the Royal Princess, which was docked in the Southeast Alaska port. Princess organizes popular bus or single-engine airplane flights to a lodge on the Inlet for a crab feed.

“As your flight takes off from the bustling downtown Ketchikan harbor, panoramic views of Revillagigedo Island and the spectacular mountains of the Tongass National Forest are revealed,” the company’s says of the latter. “The narrated flight highlights the historic importance of your aircraft and the landmarks below. After 20 minutes of breathtaking scenery, you’ll experience the thrill of a water landing at the remote George Inlet Lodge, a rustic yet elegant oasis that once served as an early 1900s cannery bunkhouse.”

The Monday crash is not the first involving tourists visiting Ketchikan. All 11 people aboard an Otter that crashed into Mount Jumbo about 40 miles southwest of Ketchikan last July miraculously survived. Nine died in a crash 24 miles northeast of the city in 2015.

After the latter crash and the investigation that followed, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) warned of a “company culture” of risk-taking, reporting that the “pilot’s decisions regarding his tour flights were influenced by schedule pressure; his attempt to emulate the behavior of other more experienced pilots; and Promech’s organizational culture which tacitly endorsed flying in hazardous weather conditions.”

A year after the crash, Promech Air was bought by competitor Taquan Air, one of the companies with a plane involved in the latest crash. That accident came only three months after the NTSB warned commercial operators it was time to update aircraft technology to protect against midair collisions.

“The ‘see-and-avoid’ concept has long been the foundation of midair collision prevention,” the agency wrote in the final report into a midair collision in Western Alaska that left five dead in 2016. “However, the inherent limitations of this concept, including human limitations, environmental conditions, aircraft blind spots, and operational distractions, leave even the most diligent pilot vulnerable to the threat of a midair collision with an unseen aircraft. 

“Technologies in the cockpit that display or alert of traffic conflicts…can help pilots become aware of and maintain separation from nearby aircraft.”

Risk taking

Commercial pilots and Alaska guides are paid to keep safe those who come to Alaska looking for what is today marketed as soft adventure – “activities that lack danger, seem safe to most people and do not require skill or experience”  – versus old school, hard adventure, which has always entailed hanging things out there a little or more than a little.

The Sunday Denali rescue involved the latter, according to the Park Service, which described “traumatic injuries in a snowboarding fall while descending Windy Corner…a feature at 13,500 feet on Denali named for its extreme winds and a site known for rockfall hazard.”

What the agency left out was that Windy Corner is also known for ice. As the Park Services mountaineering FAQs sheet notes, “most climbers leave their floatation (skis or snowshoes) at Camp 3, (11,200 feet) and put on their crampons from there.”

“Because of the steeper and often icy terrain (there), you should pack your sleds lightly and use crampons and ice axes,” guide Colby Coombs warns in Denali’s West Buttress: A Climber’s Guide to Mt. McKinley’s Classic Route.

Snowboarding or skiing on high-altitude ice is invariably sketchy. The Park Service’s Maureen Gualtieri reported that after sustaining “traumatic injuries” in the Wednesday fall, the unnamed snowboarder and a companion ended up pinned down by bad weather near Windy Corner for days.

“An NPS ranger patrol camped at 11,000 feet attempted to reach the party (Wednesday) evening,” she said, “however high winds and poor visibility turned them around.  On Thursday, although weather improved lower on the mountain, high winds prevailed at Windy Corner.  The park’s high altitude helicopter was able to fly over the incident site, but sustained winds over 30 mph precluded a rescue.”

Cloud cover kept the helo away on Friday and Saturday, but the ranger patrol and a volunteer nurse were able to reach the injured climber and his partner. The injured snowboarder and his climbing companion were short-hauled off the mountain individually on Sunday and flow to a lower location where they could be loaded into a helo and flown to Talkeetna for further care.

It was not a great start to the climbing season just getting underway. Gualtieri said there are only 166 climbers currently on the mountain.  The year’s first ranger patrol didn’t reach Denali’s 14,200-foot camp until late Sunday night after assisting with the evacuation at Windy Corner, and no one has been reported to have summitted Denali yet this year.

No climbers died on Denali last year. It was the first time in 15 years without a climbing-related death. But all five people aboard a de Havilland Beaver on an August, flightseeing tour died when the plane crashed into nearby Thunder Mountain.

Four of the dead were tourists from Poland. The pilot was the 58-year-old owner of an auto repair shop in Michigan two summers into his dream job as an Alaska Bush pilot. 

The bodies were not recovered because of the steep and dangerous terrain in which the wreckage of the plane came to rest.

“(Craig) Layson may be far from home, but his family has come to terms with a grave that is both public and private in a land both beautiful and haunting,” Francis X. Donnelly would later write in The Detroit News.

“Alaska can kill you a hundred ways, locals say. You could get eaten by a grizzly bear, slip off a glacier, freeze to death overnight, get lost in the vast wilderness.”

It is the state’s danger, and in some way, part of the state’s attraction.







20 replies »

  1. I wonder if our old friend Bill Yankee would think wearing a bicycle helmet would have helped?

    • Man, what’s up with you Steve-O? Nothing better to do but throw daggers at people who may or may not even see it? Sometimes you have decent comments that make me think a little bit, but lately, man… At least Bill would use his actual name online. Yeah, he was pretty pointed and I’ve called him out for picking fights online etc., but at least he used his real name and didn’t just make childish taunts to the internet. In fact, he was pretty damn educated, just looked at things from a different perspective. I guess I’m trying to say don’t be a troll, you’re better than that – act like it.

      Cheers, I guess.

      • Sorry to have ruffled your feathers Jack. Bill was always concerned about helmets and safety, this article recalls a lot of discussions about wearing helmets for me and I figured he might appreciate the comment…maybe you know better with your ‘actual name’. My actual name on this forum is Steve-O. If you think Bill Yankee didn’t just make childish taunts, you’ve never read Bill Yankee. You can still read him at MRAK where he drops gems like “This is a classic case of someone’s bathroom breeding Bolsheviks” I’m not sure why he no longer posts here, but I can only surmise.

      • Hey Steve,
        No, you’re right – he did make childish taunts. And I called him out on it because it could be annoying as hell. If your comment was made in jest, knock yourself out. It just seemed like to me, you’re kicking a guy when he hasn’t been around to defend himself. He did have some pretty snarky shit though. Sometimes brought a smile to my face…

    • I fished around Bill Y. for a number of years, before he retired. He loves Alaska, was a gentleman fisher and respected the dignity of all people he met. I miss seeing his face.

    • Steve O…
      Your sarcasm does uncover some valuable points.
      Paul Claus a very respected bush pilot in AK wears a helmet and “over the shoulders” safety harness and is on record starting he feels these “tools” are valuable in providing overall safety for pilots of small planes.
      (Especially in hard landings)
      He has been featured in ad’s in the “bush mailer” that Alaskans find in their mailboxes….look for his ad this summer.

  2. I am glad you are writing about this recent plane crash in SE as I think something desperately needs to change with laws regarding required equipment on “air taxi” commercial flights in Alaska.
    Like why are these planes not required to have electronic devices that could alert them of other planes in their vicinity?
    What we saw last summer over the Big Su was the same event…
    “Two airplanes collided in the skies over Alaska north of Anchorage.
    Alaska State Troopers shortly after noon were notified of the crash in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.”
    One of the pilots was “commercial” with years of experience under his belt.
    I personally feel these “beavers” used for flightseeing are way too old for commercial service since most of them were retired from mail service over 50 years ago.
    Antiquated systems…
    Antiquated exit doors for passengers…
    These factors contribute to the lack of survival when an incident does occur.
    Last year my family wanted to take my young son for a flightseeing flight in Willow, but I said NO…better to go for a hike up in the mountains and enjoy the serenity that way.
    Days later, the fatal crash with an overloaded “beaver” occurred on Willow Lake with a young pilot from Anc.
    (Luckily the small child on board survived the crash)
    It seems NTSB needs to quickly intervene and make some changes to existing regulations in AK or this history of hiring small aircraft for air taxis is sure to fall for good as litigation buries companies responsible for these deaths.

    • The only person to blame are the pilots in this case. “What goes up, must come down”
      Based on Public Law 100-223, FAA issued a rule in 1989 that required all passenger carrying aircraft with more than 30 seats flying in U.S. airspace to be equipped with TCAS II by the end of 1991.

      • Bryan,
        1991 was a long time ago…
        Why only 30 passengers or more?
        Are not 11 or 4 lives worth the nominal price for this technology?
        I firmly believe it is time the FAA and NTSB makes it law for ALL commercial flights.
        Maybe the AK legislation should pass a law requiring TCAS II for all commercial air taxis in Alaska?
        Honestly, these last few years have been a mess as more inexperienced young pilots flock to AK each summer to “earn their wings”.
        “For the past 30 years, aviation has benefited from traffic collision avoidance systems (TCAS) installed in large airplanes.
        The newest version of this safety technology, TCAS II, provides aural and visual warnings to pilots as well as resolution advisories instructing, for example, one airplane to climb and another to descend to avoid a midair collision.”

      • Steve, you are talking about an expensive system (TCAS II) and added weight especially on smaller plans. Plus, the other planes would need the system for it to work effectively $$$$$. Also, I assume the aircraft were operating in uncontrolled Class G airspace (Alaska) where at best, 1 mile visibility and clear of clouds is required. Do Alaskan pilots fly through the clouds during VFR flight? Do they break those FAA minimums? Sure. Is it wise – NO! So, as you see it is the pilots responsibility to operate the aircraft safely within the prescribed regulations. Class G is basically a “free-for-all” as far as “airspace” is concerned. An “overloaded” Beaver is the pilots fault. I had a Cessna pick me up on a beach on Katmai once heading to Homer. Weather started to deteriorate on the way back and damned if we weren’t in the clouds descending IFR while flying VFR. As a pilot myself, I was biting my nails a bit because I know how easily it is to get into Vertigo and Spatial Disoreientation while in the clouds, especially VFR. It can be a very dangerous situation and being as I didnt know the pilots abilities I was a bit concerned.

      • Thanks Bryan,
        I appreciate your feedback on this, since I am not a pilot…but have been on quite a few air taxi flights in AK.
        Most pilots were hand picked and did great…but I was always surprised at the lack of “instruments” onboard and eventually went back to the snowmachines and jet boats for my remote travel.
        Weather and clouds are just too unpredictable in AK to depend on visual navigation in my opinion (at least for commercial flights).
        I did not know Alaska gets it’s own FAA class of G…
        Which explains why some pilots are even allowed to fly with no radio and no contact with airstrip (like many that fly over my house and land in Willow).
        I guess it has to do with all the small air taxis in the bush providing a much needed service with fixed up old aircraft.
        I wonder how much a small unit costs (TCAS II)…
        Since this one I found weighs less than a pound.
        “With more than 10,000 TCAS II/ACAS II installations on more than 325 aircraft types, BendixKing is the overwhelming choice in collision avoidance for airline and corporate pilots.”
        Back in the Eastern Sierra, I worked at Mammoth Lakes airport for a while and ALL the charters coming up from LA had this equipment onboard…
        I guess it becomes a question for pilots in AK of “How much is your life worth? ”

      • Personally I’m much more comfortable flying on a 50+ year old small plane where I can talk to the pilot and see what is going on, than flying in a massive commercial airliner where the pilots don’t even know what he plane they are piloting is even capable of…have you read about the 737 max and how the technology crashed those planes?

        Even small commercial operations should be required to have aircraft avoidance gear, this could easily be a direct cost pass through to clients to pay for safety. We have the technology and it isn’t cost prohibitive nor is it weight prohibitive. I’m surprised pilots and small air carriers haven’t already taken this simple step.

      • Steve, the difference between IFR and VFR are two different HUGE beasts. While I am assuming here, I am going to assume that most Alaskan pilots and their aircraft are NOT certified/current for IFR flight. Then add Class G airspace and there will be problems.
        Cheapest TCAS I could find is $10,000. I did see a gizmo for $800 that uses the transponder for collision avoidance that looked interesting. But again, no FAA requirement.

      • Steve-O, I agree with you and in this particular case, an avoidance system may have helped. But, what if one of those flightseeing planes (commercial operator) hit a bush or experimental plane which isn’t required to have any such system in Class G airspace? What if 2 bush planes collided where no radios or TCAS is required? It boils down to the pilots. If you lack the visibility to safely clear yourself or fly your aircraft – do not fly. Simple as that. I can only assume these operators have standard routes they fly, at designated times, and communicate their positions for safety with each other for flight avoidance. It is a lose system tied together with fingers crossed that generally works well. Accidents happen. Again, we are talking uncontrolled airspace. There is also a lot of pressure to fly on those pilots. I assume a lot of those tourists paid in advance and only have a certain time window to fly? The season is short $$$.
        I will disagree with you on most airline pilots. They generally are excellent pilots (ex and current military) who are very well qualified (the majors) and know their aircraft systems quite well. But again, even in the most controlled environments accidents happen.

      • Bryan,
        $10,000 for avionics that could have prevented this accident does not seem like a “deal breaker” to me.
        Remember many of these pilots pay cash for these planes and have the money.
        AP reports that regarding this latest crash…
        “a pilot who used his family’s savings to buy his own plane”
        “He spent his family’s $500,000 savings on a 1952 Beaver airplane, he told the Los Angles newspaper.”
        Adding the avionics to this 67 year old plane would only have cost him a mere 2 percent more in spending.
        I firmly feel it is time the FAA got serious and brings commercial flights up to speed with regulations in other states.

      • Steve, it isnt so much the 2% as it is the FAA Class of airspace which designates the type of avionics required onboard a particular aircraft or designated cloud clearances for that particular “Class”. The FAA does a good job. Collision avoidance is Pilot 101. Not the FAA’s responsibility. This crash was/is 100% pilot induced and I’ll bet tue NTSB report says so. Guess they should have spent the family money of a fishing boat.

    • Hey Steve,
      You understand that these ‘antiquated’ aircraft are oftentimes the best aircraft for the job, right? Also, these aircraft are required to be maintained to a very high standard mechanically. Every part of these aircraft are inspected on a time based schedule and might as well be brand new. Are you just concerned about the lack of cockpit bells and whistles or that the planes are over 50 years old? Personally, I have no problems getting in an aircraft operated by any of the quality air taxis in AK – the ones that don’t fly when they shouldn’t and keep their aircraft maintained correctly.


      PS – can you check out the previous blog comments again? I asked you a question regarding non-motorized trails vs roads with bikes and I’m interested in your take on it – thanks in advance!

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