Aviation history will be made today in Southeast Alaska as two charter air carriers begin using a low-altitude flight route with a satellite-guided navigation system, air safety officials said.
No such flight path has been used in the nation so far, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The new routes, drawn mostly over the panhandle's water ways, will enable small aircraft equipped with special navigation systems to fly through any weather conditions and reduce accidents, officials said.
Today, pilots from two charter air services, L.A.B. Flying Service in Juneau and Sitka-based Harris Aircraft, are scheduled to depart from Juneau and Sitka, respectively, arrive at Hoonah around lunchtime, and return to their ports of origin in the afternoon.
The relatively new navigation system includes two screens showing computerized renderings of the terrain in real time: one looking down at a map of the land, and the other a forward view of the mountains and islands approaching.
"It's like playing a video game," said pilot Lynn Bennett, also director of operations for L.A.B. Flying Service.
The communication program is known as the Wide Area Augmentation System Global Positioning System.
The flight plan was designed by Capstone, a joint group of Alaska flight associations, such as the Aircraft Owners and Pilot's Association, Airline Pilots Association, the Alaska Aviation Coordination Council, plus United Parcel Service, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, and the U.S. Air Force.
Hundreds of hours went into planning the routes, which allow smaller aircraft to travel an altitude of 3,000 feet or less.
"It tends to be warmer down below," said Harris Aircraft Services pilot Chuck Thompson. Ice hovers in the air above 3,000 feet, making flying difficult.
Accident and fatality rates have caused flying in Alaska to be listed as one of the nation's most dangerous occupations, according to the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety.
Capstone research showed Southeast Alaska had 233 aviation accidents and 126 aviation deaths from 1999 to 2002.
Low-altitude flying also saves time because aircraft do not have to climb to 9,000 feet to escape the weather and then zig-zag back down to land.
Thompson estimates some flights will be 20 to 30 minutes shorter.
Previously, all aircraft had to use the same flight path, which soared over cloudy mountains in many places and required the aircraft to remain at high altitudes.
The new routes are only six miles wide, as opposed to the usual 12 miles, allowing for better precision.
The new routes are quite extensive through Southeast Alaska; smaller planes will have easier access to communities such as Hoonah, Angoon and Haines.
"This is good news, that's for sure," said Steve Brown, general manager of Hoonah Trading, the town's main shopping outlet.
Hoonah Mayor Windy Skaflestad said the biggest improvement is the accessibility for residents needing to travel.
"It takes a while for people here to get used to something," Skaflestad said. "I think the impact is going to be great."
Several years ago, a man in Hoonah died from a heart attack while medics waited three days for weather to clear to fly to Juneau.
FAA regional administrator Patrick Poe said the flight plans and technology are an ideal that could be implemented elsewhere in the country.
"It can be a model for places in the Lower 48 with similar challenges but lacking solutions," Poe said.