Case raises questions about rural airport safety

Posted: Tuesday, July 20, 2004

ANCHORAGE - A Bethel jury awarded a pilot nearly $1.3 million after he successfully argued that ill-maintained windsocks at the Kipnuk airport contributed to his accident.

The case is raising questions about adequate funding and maintenance at Alaska's rural airports.

Pilot Lance Miller said within seconds of landing on the icy runway in Kipnuk, he realized the airport's faded orange windsock was wrong. The wind was blowing from a different direction, and it wasn't a light breeze, as indicated by the limp windsock.

The wind was strong enough to push Miller's Cessna 172 off the narrow runway, where it hit soft snow and flipped, damaging its wings and tail.

Miller suffered head and back injuries that eventually forced him to move to Anchorage.

Miller sued the Alaska Department of Transportation, claiming its failure to maintain the airport's two windsocks contributed to his accident three winters ago.

A Bethel jury sided with Miller and last month awarded him nearly $1.3 million for medical expenses, lost income and airplane repairs.

Many experienced pilots say the large award sets a bad precedent. They say flying in rural Alaska is inherently risky, and pilots and passengers must expect the unexpected. They say the state is doing all it can to ensure air travelers' safety.

But others familiar with Alaska aviation contend the state chronically underfunds rural airport maintenance, endangering pilots and their passengers.

"The state of Alaska just does not care about Bush Alaska," said Miller's attorney, Jim Valcarce of Bethel. "The sense I get is that 'you ought be thankful we've even given you an airport.' "

Miller had been a licensed pilot less than a year when he and another Federal Aviation Administration employee flew to Kipnuk on Jan. 23, 2001, to work on the airport's electronic navigation system. The village of 650, a few miles from the Bering Sea on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, has no road and sees only a few barges a year to deliver supplies.

The airport, built in 1979, originally had a windsock at both ends of its north-south runway. Shifting tundra caused the south windsock to tip over several years ago. It was never repaired.

But the north windsock appeared to be working when Miller circled the airport, he said in an interview this week.

"I noticed the windsock was not erect but dangling and fluttering," suggesting light wind almost parallel to the airstrip, he said.

It was a surprise, he added, because strong winds had delayed his trip for several days and he was expecting crosswinds in Kipnuk. Miller circled and looked at it once again before making a final approach to land.

A windsock gives a pilot crucial information about wind direction and strength and is vital when landing, said John Lovett of the FAA's airports division in Anchorage.

The FAA suggests that every airport have at least one windsock, Lovett said. It typically funds one or two when it gives the state grant money for new airport facilities, he said. The state is required to maintain the windsocks and other equipment for 20 years, Lovett said.

The Kipnuk airport is nearly 25 years old.

Miller said after the plane flipped, he went to the airport building and looked at the windsock. Its support pole was leaning, which prevented the sock from rotating freely. The sock frame appeared to be frozen or rusted in place.

"I was disgusted," Miller said. "Here I was, FAA, making sure the federal stuff is running 100 percent perfect, and the state can't even afford to replace or repair a windsock."

Assistant Attorney General David Knapp, who argued the case in Bethel, said state employees who inspected the windsock after the accident testified that it appeared to be working.

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