Seven years ago commercial pilot Jimmy Wright was flying near Angoon when he apparently lost control of his plane in a snow squall and crashed on a beach.
Wright lost a leg that day and learned a tough lesson about flying in Southeast, an area notorious for bad weather and unforgiving mountains.
"Where I work we're quite conservative, but it's still risky," said Wright, a pilot for Alaska Seaplane Service. "You have to be careful as the pilot."
Wright lived to tell his tale, but many pilots have not. Alaska ranks as the most dangerous place in the country for commercial aviators a hard fact federal regulators hope to change.
A federal safety program called Capstone launched in Bethel in 1999 will go into effect in Southeast probably next year, said Capstone manager John Hallinan of the Federal Aviation Administration. The program might save some lives in Alaska's troublesome skies, he said.
"If an airplane didn't hit the ground yesterday, it will today," said Hallinan, who joined FAA officials from across the country on a recent trip to Juneau for Capstone. "Every nine days on average we flat out kill somebody."
Under the program, the FAA will equip 150 to 200 commercial planes and helicopters in Southeast with state-of-the-art navigation technology. Although the agency still is tailoring the program to Southeast, the cockpit equipment probably will include color screens with moving maps that show pilots where they are in relation to mountains and to other aircraft, using Global Positioning System satellite technology, or GPS, said the FAA's James Call.
"They'll see other aircraft, they'll see the terrain, they'll have a precise navigation tool to do that," said Call, who noted the agency tentatively plans to start installing the cockpit equipment in May 2002.
Many local pilots who fly small aircraft currently rely almost entirely on their eyeballs to navigate in Southeast, said Mike Stedman, director of operations for Wings of Alaska. Under federal rules, airplane pilots who navigate by sight may fly only if they have at least three miles of visibility and a minimum 1,000-foot ceiling. Stedman said a lot of accidents happen because pilots take off in good visibility but keep going when they hit bad weather.
"They keep going basically until something tragic happens," said Stedman, who supports the Capstone program. "One of the big ideas is to reduce the controlled flight into terrain."
Pilots who fly in conditions too poor for visual flight currently must be certified to use flight navigation instruments. One of the primary tools for instrument navigation is a ground-to-air radio system called VOR, a network of stations scattered around Southeast that transmits radio signals to orient pilots.
LAB Flying Service is certified to fly in instrument conditions, but spokesman Lynn Bennett called the VOR system obsolete. The FAA may replace VOR with enhanced GPS satellite technology called the Wide Area Augmentation System, or WAAS.
"With GPS you've got a much more accurate signal," said Bennett, LAB's director of operations. "You can position anyplace on the globe, and you have way better accuracy, way better."
The FAA also may install a radar-like system called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B, which allows pilots to pinpoint their location using GPS and broadcast it to other pilots equipped with the same technology. Helicopter pilot Bob Engelbrecht considers ADS-B one of the most important elements of Capstone because it could help avert mid-air collisions.
"That's the biggest benefit that I see to the equipment is for traffic avoidance," said Engelbrecht, owner of NorthStar Trekking.
Congress last year appropriated about $5 million to the FAA to start the program in Southeast, said Hallinan, the Capstone manager. The agency will install the equipment, worth about $15,000 per package, in some commercial aircraft at no cost to the owners. The University of Alaska will study the program over the next several years and assess whether the technology makes flying safer. If the program is successful, Hallinan hopes all pilots voluntarily will equip their aircraft with the technology.
Kathy Dye can be reached at email@example.com.