The pilot of the Otter that crashed in Alaska on Monday, killing Senator Stevens and three other passengers, encountered some very bad weather.  Low ceilings.  Fog and rain.  Gusty winds.

Rugged terrain only complicated things.  Fortunately, the pilot had tons of experience  — tens of thousands of hours.  According to the Alaska Dispatch, had any less talented pilot been at the controls, the death toll surely would have been higher.

The fact there were four survivors is testament to [the pilot’s] skills. [He] maneuvered that plane like no other mere pilot to save lives.

So is the pilot a hero?  No.  Not quite.

There’s an old saying in aviation: "a superior pilot is one who exercises superior judgment so as toN455A by jkero avoid having to exercise his superior skills."  In this case, a pilot exercising superior judgment might have turned around before tangling with the worst of the weather.  Or, better yet, never left the comfort and safety of the lake lodge in the first place.

The Weather was Bad 

When the pilot took off from the lake where the lodge was located, the weather was bad.  It was bad at nearby Dillingham airport.  It was bad at the river camp that was to be their destination.  And it was bad everywhere between.

A pilot who flew the same valley where the crash occurred confirmed to the LA Times that it was bad there too.  "It was just awful weather. . .I came through that valley at about 100 feet off the ground with about a mile of visibility."

Now, bad weather doesn’t mean a good pilot must stay on the ground.  For example, the airport at Dillingham has various instrument approach procedures that will allow planes to land safely in some pretty crappy weather. No undue risk. No sweat.

But this pilot wasn’t headed to Dillingham.  He was headed to a fishing camp on a nearby river.  No instrument approach procedure would guide him through the clouds.  If this pilot was going to get there, he’d have to do it without instruments. He’d have to do it by looking out the window.  Seat of the pants stuff.  All perfectly safe, as long as the weather is good enough for you to see where you are going.

Controlled Flight into Terrain

So what exactly happened?  What we know about the accident is consistent with "controlled flight into terrain."  Opting out of the instrument flight system, the pilot had to stay under the Senator Stevens Plane Crash Wreckageclouds.  He couldn’t go through them because once inside, he wouldn’t be able to see and might bump into something hard and pointy.  So he had to stay in the clear and visually pick his way around the terrain in his path.  But as he maneuvered under the low clouds and around the fog, he suddenly came upon a mountain’s steep up-slope.  He shoved the throttle forward, pulled the nose up and began a climb.  But the terrain rose faster than could his aircraft.  He bellied onto the rising slope while in full control of a perfectly functioning aircraft.

At least that how it looks.

According to John Bouker, the pilot who found the wreck: 

The Otter had plowed into the hill. He bounced up the mountain. He looked like he was in a full-power climb. . the plane appeared mostly intact.

That’s a classic "controlled flight into terrain” scenario.

Poor Decision Making   

This morning a pilot who used to fly search and rescue out of Dillingham called me to talk about the crash.  He pointed out that the state of Alaska accounts for more than a third of all commuter and air taxi crashes in the entire country.  That’s right: one state accounts for a third of all the nation’s crashes.  And more than 80 percent of those crashes are due to poor decision-making.

Alaskans seem to accept aviation tragedies as part of life in the wilderness.  My caller suggested that poor decision making seems to be not just tolerated, but sewn into the very fabric of Alaskan aviation community. 

The question is not the whether the pilot had the skills to “maneuver” the aircraft around difficult terrain. Or whether he had the experience necessary to pick his way around the obstacles along the route. Or whether he brought the aircraft down with the least impact possible.  The question is whether, given the weather, he should have attempted the flight at all.

I can easily imagine that a nice fire was burning in the lodge fireplace when the pilot loaded up his passengers. If ever there was ever a flight that didn’t need to be made, it was this one. 

Yet it was.  

  • Anon

    The Anchorage Times and other Alaska press sources have always loved the “bush pilot” machisimo. Never question the heroism and pilot skills of these heros. Headlines such as “whiteout takes the life of another great Alaska bush pilot” or “weather causes crash”… always ignores the reality…. poor decision making is the fundamental cause of most of the bush pilot crashes. Period.

  • Gabriel

    As someone who has worked closely with Ted Stevens I can understand how a pilot might be intimidated into making a poor decision to go flying that day. Senator Stevens is a legend in Alaska, and I understand how a pilot might be pressured by his gruff and commanding manner. It is unlikely we will know what conversations led to this accident.

    Nonetheless, it is the pilot in command who has to make the hard decision even if that means saying no to the VIP who he is flying.

    When a pilot makes the right decision to stay on the ground there is never credit, no one will ever know “what could have happened”, and he or she needs to have the strength to accept that others may criticize that decision, but they will live another day.

  • FoolsGold

    I don’t know if there was any sort of pre-impact knowledge of the rising terrain. No shouts, no stall warning horn, no abrupt maneuvering at all, no increase in power from cruise to full throttles.

    It looks more likely that there was no awareness of danger. Scud running? It is often performed safely. The route was one the pilot had flown often, he was exactly on course, just too low.

  • Mike Danko

    Sean O’Keefe’s account of the crash is consistent with the crash just “happening” without any warning or evasive maneuvering. (Video here=> O’Keefe, however, blacked out in the crash. Victims who black out often “lose” seconds or even minutes just before the crash and don’t even know it.

    Examination of the wreckage will more reliabily tell us whether the pilot took evasive maneuvers. We’ll learn such things as the throttle position at impact. Examination of the instrument faces can sometimes reveal whether the aircraft was level, climbing, or descending. Ground scars will tell us whether the aircraft was still on course and wings level.

    Still too early to say.


  • FoolsGold

    The witness statement depends upon his familiarity with flight operations, his alertness at the time and the quality of his recall after the loss of consciousness episode. Its possible he was looking at the scenery or dozing prior to impact or simply does not recall, though I would expect an outcry and stall warning horn to be recalled.
    No question the interim report will eventually provide far more data. I guess the key word is “eventually”.