Investigators look into tour plane crashes

Visitors continue to fly on Southeast sightseeing tours

Posted: Monday, August 27, 2007

Nancy Mills stood eager to board a Wings Airways seaplane that would eventually take her on a tour of glaciers - signature sights throughout Southeast Alaska.

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Saddened but undaunted by two recent fatal plane crashes within a month, the cruise ship passenger from Danville, Calif., says these accidents have not shaken her confidence in the single-engine planes - even as they weave through narrow inlets and passing steep cliffs.

"I've had terribly close encounters before - a near mid-air collision and an engine froze up once - so I've had a lot of small-plane experience," she said. "This is not that scary."

But casting a more critical look are federal investigators, probing why 10 people have died this summer on Alaska tour planes, and they are tapping additional resources to find out what happened.

The National Transportation Safety Board assigned six investigators - two from Anchorage and four from Washington, D.C. - to the most recent crash that killed five people and injured four others this month just outside of Ketchikan.

"The NTSB has been concerned about air tours, not necessarily Alaska, but the Lower 48, particularly Grand Canyon and Hawaii for a while," said NTSB investigator Clint Johnson. "Until recently Alaska has had a good record."

But now, the NTSB has two Alaska crashes to sort out.

The first accident occurred July 24, just after 2 p.m. during a flight through the Misty Fiords National Monument about 40 miles northeast of Ketchikan. The crash killed two East Coast couples and the pilot.

Less than one month later, a second plane crashed while returning from a bear viewing trip in Traitors Cove, about 25 miles north of downtown Ketchikan. It killed five people, and it injured four, including the pilot.

Both accidents remain under review while investigators examine weather conditions, steps the pilot took and how well the airplane was operating at the time of the crash, Johnson said.

"Two major accidents tend to get your attention," Johnson said. "Ultimately what we are trying to do is offer suggestions and recommendations to the industry, but specifically what they are, it's way to early to tell. It really is."

Those licensed to do aerial sightseeing tours in Alaska are grouped with carriers who provide other services, so an exact number of operators just doing tours is not readily available, according to Federal Aviation Administration officials.

According to NTSB data, there have been 11 fatalities nationwide among sightseeing crashes, not counting the five from the latest Alaska crash, said Washington D.C.-based spokesman Keith Holloway.

"I understand right now some people are on edge," said Mike Stedman, a seasoned pilot and vice president of flight operations for Juneau-based Wings Airways.

But he knows what has triggered the federal investigation.

"When the words 'tourist,' 'sightseeing' or 'flightseeing' come up, then you have two (accidents) in a short period, I think it's good the NTSB is looking into it a little bit more," he said.

Seaplanes and helicopters providing sightseeing tours or trips to remote areas are a familiar sight and sound along Alaska's coastal towns for about five months each year starting in May.

Visitors, most coming off cruise ships bringing more than a million visitors yearly, marvel at the graceful turns and smooth landings the aircraft make while they await their chance to board.

Mills, her husband, Bill and son, Wesley, were among those watching seaplanes this week. Standing at the end of a sinuous line on a Juneau wharf, Mills had already taken an aerial tour in Ketchikan.

"I never was anxious for a second," Mills said. "It's just spectacular. I love the feeling of being able to see how vast this is. Being up high gives me that feeling of how beautiful this state is. I'm just not worried about it. That's why I'm doing it again."

That's a relief for Stedman, whose company does glacier tours as well as trips to a glacier lodge for a salmon dinner.

Stedman said no sightseeing pilot would take a trip deemed unsafe just for an extra few thousand dollars in sales it may generate.

"We are up in the pointy end of that airplane, so we are not going to jeopardize our lives, much less somebody else's," he said.

"It's foolish to go out there and do something you know is not good," he said. "We want to get home, just like the passengers do."

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