ANCHORAGE - Fireweed blossoms are peaking, the silver salmon are running and hunting season is underway in Alaska, signs of autumn that has the Federal Aviation Administration offering a safety outreach to improve hunting and fishing fly-in accidents.
FAA studies show that August is the worst month for aviation accidents in Alaska among both commercial charter and privately-operated small aircraft, with as many as 22 such incidents in one recent year.
But the FAA is hoping that this fall number will be way down, thanks to a day-long fly-in safety seminar offered Aug. 1 at Palmer Municipal Airport by the Medallion Foundation, the Alaska chapter of the Ninety Nines, Artic's Air Academy and the FAA's safety team.
The Ninety Nines is an international organization of women pilots, and Artic's is a flight training school located in Palmer. The program is sponsored primarily by the Alaska Region of the Federal Aviation Administration's Safety Team.
The event, billed as Pilot Adventure, will attract pilots already using skills learned at the seminar. Palmer airport manager Chris Gates said he would like to expand next year's safety seminar to a two-day event.
The target for such safety seminars are pilots flying into locations like Black Rapids, the Talkeetna Mountains, and farther areas north, to drop off hunters hoping to harvest moose, sheep and caribou.
Flying in to most of these locations means landing at what aviators call "short field," usually gravel bars, airstrips cut between trees, or dirt strips on the sides of mountains.
While business owners and corporate executives alike spend thousands of dollars readying their aircraft to fly into sport hunting locations, they are not always assured proficient pilots, according to the FAA.
"It is well known countrywide that if you hunt and fish and don't own an airplane in Alaska, you probably want to," said Dennis Ward, executive director of the Medallion Foundation. "I was one of those - I wanted to hunt and fish - so I learned to fly."
Ward was among the organizers of the seminar, prompted by the FAA statistics showing a disturbing rise in the number of aviation accidents each August. From 2004 to 2007 alone, the number of such incidents rose from 14 to 22, the FAA said.
June's numbers, by comparison, there were 10 such aviation accidents in Alaska.
The carnage from these aircraft is spread far and wide in Alaska.
"Most of these incidents and accidents are on landing or on take off," said Ward, during a presentation on "How Not to Wreck Your Super Cub this Hunting Season."
"Most of the time the injuries to the pilot and passenger are minimal, but the cost of getting your airplane ferried or even helicoptered out is astronomical," he said.
Other seminar subjects focused on human error and the aviator survival skills, learning to fly in Alaska and the passenger's role in aviation safety.
Kurt MacKenzie of FR Bell and Associates, who flies recreationally about 100 hours a year, said he found the session was well worth his time.
"This was hugely valuable and I started using the techniques and procedures right away," he said. "I have a cabin out in the (Matanuska-Susitna) valley and am using what we discussed while flying my Maule M4 on a 700-foot airstrip out there."
FAA employee Val Jokela, in a session on survival from the passenger's perspective, offered some unique, but common sense survival tips.
"What you get out of a crashed airplane is usually what you are wearing," said Jokela. " I use vests, wear them in the plane and fill the pockets with items that can be used in case of an emergency."
Her suggestions included an array of items from knifes that can cut wood and metal to a Ziploc bag full of peanut butter, placed in a lower back pocket of the vest, where it can be used as both a lumbar support and food high in protein.
The seminar also featured a short field clinic on the gravel airstrip that attracted seven pilots and their aircraft. They proceeded to put into practice the advice of seasoned pilots from the Ninety Nines and Artic's Academy.
The seminar also included vendor booths and a display of historic Alaskan aircraft, and tours inside a U.S Air Force C17 from the Third Wing at Elmendorf Air Force Base.
MacKenzie said he felt that the promise of a combined safety seminar and short field competition at next year's event would help the seminar grow to become one of the biggest aviation events in Alaska.
"I am just tickled to death," said Ken More, with Artic's Academy. "This is the best aviation project that I have ever worked on."
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