Why Is Alaska So Dangerous?

Extreme Weather Can be Extremely Local

misty-alaska-morning
misty-alaska-morning

At 10,000 feet, the weather opened up and we could see how Anchorage is surrounded by awesome and treacherous terrain. My first look at Alaska was from the window seat of a Boeing, but as a pilot, I could immediately appreciate how this could be a very dangerous place to fly. Later, as I drove the winding mountain roads, I was astounded by how local the weather was. One moment I was in windy, stormy weather with blowing rain and lightning – but around the next bend in the road were blue skies and calm conditions. My thoughts were that this must be a pilot’s never ending challenge. I humbly offered a vote of confidence and respect to those who navigate these changeable skies on a day-to-day basis.

But I also took the lesson as a reminder that Alaska isn’t unique in its unusual local conditions. Even in the relatively benign Northeast, my Alaska experience made me think of the stretch of geography in central Connecticut that seems to have a weather mind of its own. Even when VFR conditions are forecast throughout the region, there’s a block of airspace south-southeast of Hartford that sometimes packs a surprisingly low blow – with ceilings hugging the terrain much closer than expected along the north-south line defined by the Connecticut River. I’m sure you’ve got similar examples of your own – wherever you fly.

As tragic as Monday’s fatal accident in Alaska was, we pilots have a choice in how we learn the lessons that will ultimately come out of the NTSB investigation. Those of us who do not fly in Alaska can write off the accident as yet another example of dangerous flying in a state that doesn’t seem to care. Or we can put our heads inside the pilot as the final decisions were being weighed. With all the pros and cons in place, somehow the gamble came up short. Five lives were lost and “little airplane” flying took it on the chin when it comes to public opinion.

The best we can do is to resolve, personally, that we will reaffirm our commitment to doing all within our power to keep ourselves from running out of safe options – whether it’s a morning flight to a pancake breakfast, or a pressure-cooker business flight on a day when the weather gods are not necessarily playing on our side.