The number of aviation accidents in Alaska in the last fiscal year was the lowest it's been in 20 years, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Those kinds of statistics "just turn one's head around," agency head Marion Blakely said, in noting Alaska recorded only 100 aviation accidents for the year ending Sept. 30.
Blakely credited an alliance formed several years ago between the FAA and the aviation industry.
John Duncan, FAA Flight Standards Division manager in Anchorage, said flight accidents have been on a downward trend in the state for five yeas, and several safety programs seem to have had success. But work remains.
"We know one year can be followed by a year of increased accidents, unless there is a sustained effort to make safety an inherent part of the business," he said. "Our next effort is to improve the way pilots are trained at the start by working with certified flight instructors."
Duncan said the figures don't indicate what sort of aircraft were involved in the accidents. Commercial carriers and private planes are counted in the number, as are fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, which are flying more tourist flights during the summer.
And while the number of accidents is lower than in any time in 20 years - it hit an all-time high of 173 in 1995 - the FAA can't say how much safer the skies are.
Duncan said there is no way to gauge how many hours are being flown in Alaska. "There is no accident rate."
In some cases, it could be that there were fewer flights.
"We know in rural communities the cost of fuel was up," he said.
"Our next effort is to improve the way pilots are trained at the start by working with certified flight instructors."
FAA Flight Standards Division
Smoke from fires in the Interior last summer could have cut down on flying by reducing visibility, he added. But smoke could have left more people flying into unsafe conditions, so it's difficult to tell whether the fires contributed to the numbers going up or down.
He noted, though, that one of the FAA programs that seems to have contributed to the decrease in accidents is aimed at keeping people from flying into unsafe situations.
The Circle of Safety program educates aviation consumers about their role in demanding safe practices and their responsibility to accept the limits that weather and terrain in Alaska place on aviation.
Much of Alaska is served by planes with only one pilot and maybe six passengers "who have the capability of putting pressure on pilots to fly into unsafe situations," Duncan said.
He described a classic risky situation where a community may have multiple, small air taxi services. If one carrier says conditions are too poor to fly, people can go to others to try to find someone who may compromise on safety to get the business.
Circle of Safety aims to teach people not to do that, he said.
Three years ago, the Alaska Air Carriers Association sponsored the establishment of the voluntary Medallion Foundation program to raise operational standards among carriers.
"This trend in safety is encouraging, association executive director Karen Casnovas said. "Participation in programs which provide classroom training, simulated environmental conditions experience, and system safety processes are of great importance to air carriers across the state. More aviation owners should realize the value in these safety programs and become involved."
James LaBelle, area manager for the National Transportation Safety Board called the continued downward trend in aviation accidents encouraging and credited increased technology, professional pilot skills and safety programs.
"The job is not yet complete, but exceptional progress has been made," he said.