About Tom George

Tom George serves as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Regional Manager for Alaska. He resides in Fairbanks, and flies a Cessna 185. Follow Alaska aviation activities and events on Twitter at http://www.twitter/AOPAAlaska or at: http://www.aopa.org/region/ak

Winging It: Where Alaska’s aviation system came from

A lot of my time is spent advocating for the aviation infrastructure that we count on to fly around Alaska.  Airports, nav aids, weather stations, Flight Service, weather cameras, etc. are all things that we use and often take for granted. But where did they come from?  If you are at all interested in that question, check out Jack Jefford’s book Winging It,  originally published in 1981, but more recently released in paperback.

winging it coverJack Jefford came to Alaska in the fall of 1937, to take a job flying for Hans Mirow in Nome.  Like many pilots of the time he learned to fly by shear persistence. Jefford kicked around the mid-west trying any way he could to make flying into a career—including a stint as a barn-stormer—before coming north.  Travel to and from Alaska at that time was by ship. Once arriving in Nome, the airplane was pressed into almost around-the-clock service transporting miners to the creeks for the short summer season.  Aviation was all by visual reference, when the weather allowed.  “City” airports were located at the larger communities like Fairbanks, Anchorage, Nome, Bethel. In-between, the airports literally were “fields” or gravel bars; frozen rivers, lakes and sea-ice in the winter months.

Pre-1940, radios were just starting to be installed in airplanes.  Not the VHF radios we know today, but HF radios initially requiring the pilot to learn Morse Code.  Even that was greatly appreciated, Jefford explains, when he crashed in the mountains east of Nome in severe winter conditions. The distress call he tapped out in code eventually brought local natives on dog teams to his rescue, ending his six day ordeal.

In the spring of 1940, Jefford made a change that corresponded with a huge growth spurt in aviation infrastructure development. He was hired by the Civil Aeronautics Authority (precursor to the FAA), as an Airways Flight Inspector just as the country was headed into World War II.  This was the start of his government career which “…would span thirty two years and over twenty thousand flying hours.” It put him in the cat-bird seat during the establishment of the initial airway structure that linked Alaska to Seattle, and connected the communities across the state.

The Japanese invading the Aleutian Islands certainly kicked military activity into high gear. A number of Jefford’s stories involve building the airports and airways down the chain.  The federal DLAND (Development of Landing Areas for National Defense) Program started in 1940, and poured $400 million into the development and improvement of military airfields across the nation.  Over two dozen airports in Alaska were constructed or improved under that program, many of which would later be turned over to the Territory (and eventually the State).  Jefford spent considerable time shuttling engineers and equipment between these construction projects.  Airstrips constructed under the DLAND program included King Salmon, Cordova, McGrath, Galena, Northway and Moses Point, to name a few.

At the same time, radio ranges to establish IFR airways were under construction.  These were low-frequency ranges that operated with dots and dashes to define the different “beams” leading to the station.

Not only did Jefford help site these facilities and transport the teams in to construct them, his job included flight checking and hauling the supplies to the technicians, specialists and families that staffed the network of facilities. Some of the most compelling stories center around rescue missions.

Old Illiamna Flight Service Station.

Old Illiamna Flight Service Station.

One memorable event took place on December 11, 1950.  The CAA manager at the Illiamna station, also a relatively new private pilot, crashed his Piper Clipper near the small community of Nondalton, on the shores of Lake Clark– badly injuring himself and his passenger.  The military flew a doctor to Illiamna, who was transported by dog sled to treat the injured pilot and passenger. He reported that the pilot was in critical condition, not stable enough for dog sled transport, and in need of air evacuation to Anchorage. Snow and icing, severe enough to force a military rescue helicopter to retreat, thwarted an earlier rescue attempt.  Departing from Anchorage in the FAA’s DC-3, Jefford encountered moderate icing as he crossed the Alaska Range but made the approach into Illiamna, which was reporting a 500 foot ceiling and less than a mile visibility. He managed to land and waited for conditions to improve.  Reports from the doctor advised that the injured pilot probably wouldn’t survive the night if he couldn’t get advanced medical attention.  After testing the snow cover on the unplowed crosswind runway at Illiamna in a truck, Jefford asked the residents of Nondalton to put out an array of gas lanterns on the lake ice in front of the village.  The flight crew calculated how many minutes they could fly the north leg of the low-frequency range before arriving at Nondalton, knowing that beyond were the peaks of the Alaska Range.  Jefford took off and flew the prescribed number minutes before being forced to circle back—without seeing any lights. On the second try he extended slightly, and just as he started his turn back, a crew member spotted the lanterns, allowing them to land on the unconsolidated snow. The deceleration in the unpacked snow made for a very short landing roll, requiring all of Jeffords talents to keep the Dug from nosing over.  After loading the patient and doctor, it took multiple attempts before they were able to get airborne, and make the trip back across the mountains to Anchorage.

This book is not a traditional biography, but was developed from many hours of tape-recorded stories Jefford told over a five year period.  It reads as though you were listening to the master story teller himself.  He and the CAA/FAA employees of that era transformed Alaskan aviation, allowing the development of more reliable service.  Low frequency airways gave way to VOR-based airways that are now the “legacy system” we are watching transition to space-based navigation.  Even though Alaska still has a sparse network of infrastructure in comparison to the lower-48 states, it is good to look back and appreciate what aviation was like in earlier times.  A big THANK YOU to Jack’s daughter Carmen Jefford Fisher, who with the assistance of her husband Mark and the late Cliff Cernick, made it possible for the rest of us to enjoy Jack Jefford’s stories—and have a greater appreciation for the men and women who developed aviation system we rely on today!

FAA Upgrades Alaska Aircraft to National ADS-B Standard

It isn’t always best to be an early adopter of a new technology.  Aircraft owners in Alaska that participated in the FAA demonstration program to implement ADS-B were among the first in the nation to experience the benefits of this new technology. Today ADS-B has become a core element of NextGen.  But when the FAA finally approved a technical standard for NextGen, the prototype equipment didn’t meet that standard.  Now FAA is offering to upgrade those aircraft that were “early equippers” so they won’t be left behind.

ADS-B display showing traffic during the Capstone Demonstration Program

ADS-B display showing traffic during the Capstone Demonstration Program

Background
From 1999 to 2006, FAA conducted an operational demonstration program in Alaska to address some serious aviation safety issues.  Known as the Capstone Program, FAA used Alaska as a test bed to launch a new technology, Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, better known as ADS-B.  This GPS-based system broadcasts (automatically) an aircraft’s location once a second, allowing another “equipped” aircraft to receive that information—a powerful tool for collision avoidance!

When within range of a ground radio, additional benefits become available.  Your aircraft position may be tracked by ATC, similar to what ATC radars do today—but with better accuracy in both time and space. If you fail to reach your destination, your ground track may speed search and rescue. But there is more… Ground stations allow aircraft to receive weather reports, NextRad weather radar and other information.  (If you are not familiar with ADS-B, AOPA has an online course which will walk you through the basics).

To obtain these benefits, the aircraft must be equipped.  In the course of the Capstone Program, FAA bought and installed the necessary equipment in about 400 aircraft in Alaska. Most of these aircraft operated commercially and were flying in the system on a daily basis, although some GA aircraft were included in the demonstration.  During this time, a few brave souls invested their own money and equipped their aircraft in order to receive the benefits of real-time traffic and weather in the cockpit.  Recognizing the benefits to aviation access and safety that this new technology represented, the Alaska Legislature adopted a low-interest loan program to help individuals and commercial operators (based in Alaska) to purchase and install this equipment in their aircraft.  The loan program continues today.

After the Capstone Program ended, a national standard for ADS-B avionics was adopted, however the original “demonstration” equipment no longer met the new standard.  To address this problem, FAA has launched a one-time project to upgrade the equipment installed in aircraft that were ADS-B equipped by November 30, 2013, to new “rule compliant” equipment. This includes not only the aircraft equipped by the FAA, but any Alaska-based aircraft that had invested in this technology prior to that date.  FAA has hired an installer who will be operating from different bases around the state on a defined schedule to make the upgrades.  Owners wishing to participate will be required to sign agreements, to have some equipment removed and new, rule-compliant avionics installed.  It may not be the way you wish to upgrade your airplane, but if you qualify, it would be worth checking with FAA to see if this upgrade program could work for you.  If you own an Alaska based aircraft equipped with Capstone-era equipment, contact the FAA Surveillance and Broadcast Services Program (907-790-7316 or jim.ctr.wright@faa.gov) to see if this helps upgrade your airplane!

Arctic Winter Games: An International Fly-In to Fairbanks

Fairbanks is undergoing an international invasion—of a good sort.  Almost 2,000 athletes ages 13-23, from eight Arctic nation teams (nine, if you include the Alaska kids) have arrived to participate in the Arctic Winter Games 2014.  Think Olympics (on a smaller scale), to compete in games with others from across the circumpolar north.

What caught my attention was how the international participants got to Fairbanks.  Not exactly general aviation—but by a series of charter flights from all over the Arctic.  The aircraft are one or another model of the Boeing 737, with a couple Airbus 320 or 330’s thrown in for good measure.  After studying the planned schedules, I decided to try and figure out where these planes were coming from, so turned to Google Earth, and below is my best approximation of where the flights came from, and roughly how they got to Fairbanks International Airport.

Approximate map of routes bringing almost 2,000 athletes to Fairbanks for Arctic Winter Games 2014

Approximate map of routes bringing almost 2,000 athletes to Fairbanks for Arctic Winter Games 2014

For the past three days, these aircraft have converged on Fairbanks to bring the participants together for a week-long set of games, ranging from snowshoe based biathlon’s, skiing, and dog mushing to indoor events like curling, soccer and traditional native games.  Much more than an athletic event, Arctic Winter Games has brought people across the arctic together since 1970, when the first games were held in Yellowknife. A total of 500 people participated in that event, which included athletes, coaches and supporters.

Fairbanks will see another flurry of air traffic on March 21, when the return migration occurs.  Airplane watchers will have an opportunity to see aircraft with paint jobs seldom seen in these parts (Air Greenland, Flair Air, Air Yamal, etc.) as they arrive to take the AWG participants home.  Hopefully taking with them new insights and inspiration after a week of rubbing shoulders with people from other circumpolar countries!

Alaska Directory of Youth Aviation Education Programs

Youth participating in an airport "traffic pattern" event, under ATC supervision.

Youth participating in an airport “traffic pattern” activity, under ATC supervision.

Do you know a kid who is interested in aviation?  Whether it’s one of your own, a neighbor or someone you met along the way—knowing the programs that are available in your community might help the next generation of pilots, mechanics, air traffic controller or airport managers get their start.  With that in mind, AOPA in Alaska has started a directory of pre-college aviation programs to help connect kids with different aspects of aviation.  They range from classes in middle or high schools, to “build a plane” projects, to a tour program at the Alaska Aviation Museum at Lake Hood.  The Civil Air Patrol has cadet programs in a dozen communities across the state, which are all listed, including a person to contact and the day and time they meet.  Two schools have actual pilot training programs, where a student could end up with a private pilot’s license!

Start something new
I hope this listing of programs will encourage educators or interested parent who might be thinking about starting a ground-school class in their high school, or an after-school aviation club to take that first step. Using the directory, they can find out who is already engaged a similar activity and contact them for ideas on how to get started.

Be proactive!  As an individual, or as part of a local aviation group, find out what youth programs are active in your area, and offer to help. Consider providing (or being) a guest speaker, setting up a Young Eagles flight event, or organizing a visit to an aviation facility.  If someone has an airplane they want to donate for a build-a-plane project, look for a youth group interested in participating.

AV8RS icon path-coverAlso listed in the directory are some of the resources that AOPA has to offer, such as the free-online AV8RS Program for young people aged 13-18.  Teachers may be interested in the PATH Handbook—Pilots and Teachers Handbook—that helps integrate math, science, physics, history and technology using general aviation examples.

The inspiration for starting this project came from my counterpart Yasmina Platt, AOPA Regional Manager for the Central Southwest Region, who developed a similar directory covering the nine states she serves.  If you would like to see what kinds of middle and high school programs are available in her part of the country (New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa), have a look: http://blog.aopa.org/vfr/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Listing-of-Pre-College-Aviation-Programs.pdf.  There may be ideas worth borrowing.  Each program’s website is included, as well as a personal contact.  Kudos to Yasmina for assembling this document, which prompted me to do a similar thing for Alaska.

This is just the start of this directory. I hope to find other programs that are not yet listed.  If you know of a youth program not included in the directory, just let me know. Please include contact information so I can invite them to participate. Or forward a copy to someone involved in the program, and invite them to contact me directly.  Over the months and years ahead, I hope to see a lot more entries added to the list!

Alaska Flight Service adds InReach to satellite tracking program

A little over a year ago Flight Service offered a new service to Alaskan pilots, allowing them to incorporate satellite tracking devices into their VFR flight plans.  Named eSRS for Enhanced Special Reporting Service, pilots sign up for (or update) a Master Flight Plan to identify the satellite tracking device they use, and obtain contact information so that a distress signal will be received by FSS—along with your GPS location. (For a more complete description of the service see http://blog.aopa.org/vfr/?p=396)

The Delorme InReach has been added to the list of satellite devices used by the Alaska FSS to receive distress messages.

The Delorme InReach has been added to the list of satellite devices used by the Alaska FSS to receive distress messages.

While this was initially restricted to SPOT and Spidertracks devices, starting on March 10, 2014, FAA has added Delorme InReach to the list of supported devices.  The InReach has some features worth noting.  Its purchase price, in the $300 range, is attractive.  Like the other devices in this class, the user has to subscribe to a messaging or tracking service—which ranges between $10 – $25 per month.  Flight Service has already been paid for— so no added cost there.  And they operate 24/7, with someone always on duty to receive a distress call.  FSS already knows your aircraft type, number of people on board and other detail from your flight plan, and is poised to expedite getting help on the way during an emergency. Add to that the GPS coordinates with your location. This service could take hours off the time required to summon help, when you need it the most!

The InReach has some attractive features in addition to price.  It uses the Iridium satellite constellation, which provides excellent coverage in Alaska.  The unit also supports two-way texting, so in addition sending a HELP message, you may be able to communicate with rescuers to let them know exactly what assistance is needed. It is portable and can go with you outside the airplane.  The only down side, from an aviation perspective, is that it lacks the automatic tracking feature used in the Spidertracks system, which automatically sends a distress in an emergency—even if the unit is destroyed in the crash. That is a powerful feature that trumps a 406 MHz ELT, from my perspective.

AOPA and the Alaska Airmen have worked closely with the FAA in support of this service.  In a little over a year’s time 55 pilots have signed up and, almost 1,000 flights have been conducted under the program.  Hopefully more people will consider participating with the addition of the InReach unit to the program.  For more details on eSRS and information on how to sign up, see: http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ato/service_units/systemops/fs/alaskan/alaska/esrs-ak/

National Wind Turbine Map: A new Pilot Resource

As one of the fastest growing forms of renewable energy, wind turbines are sprouting up all over the country.  On a recent airline flight across the country, I was blown away to see areas in northern Texas with rows of wind-turbines that went on for miles—some of which included well over of a hundred turbines. Now I know why they call them wind farms!  This technology is increasingly popular in rural Alaska, where the cost of fuel to generate electricity is through the roof expensive.  As with all good things, they come with potential impacts.  As pilots, wind turbines provide several challenges: initially as obstructions we have to avoid during flight.  If located too close to airports, they interfere with instrument approaches resulting in higher minimums and reduced access.  Finally, when the wind  blows they represent a source of turbulence, which we still have much to learn about (more on that later).

Interface to the Interactive Wind Farm Map, starts with an overview of where towers are found around the country.

Interface to the Interactive Wind Farm Map, starts with an overview of where towers are found around the country.

Locating individual wind turbines
Recently the US Geological Survey has given us a new tool to locate wind turbines, on a nation-wide basis.  A new interactive mapping application, provides access to a database that not only shows us where wind turbines are found, but records their height, blade length, and other information on a tower-by-tower basis. Prior to this, while some states captured the locations of individual wind turbines, there was no uniform database that provided this information across the country.  Starting with the FAA’s Digital Obstruction File (through July 22, 2013), a USGS team led by Dr. Jay Diffendorfer located over 47,000 turbine sites, verifying individual tower locations with high-resolution satellite imagery. This data base gives us a much better way to find individual tower locations, with a location accuracy estimated to be within 10 meters.

While fewer in number, wind turbines are sprouting up across Alaska.

While still few in number, wind turbines are sprouting up across Alaska.

A row of wind turbines just outside Unalalkeet, on the west coast of Alaska. According to the USGS interactive map, they have a total height of 156 ft. tall

A row of wind turbines just outside Unalalkeet, on the west coast of Alaska. According to the USGS interactive map, they have a total height of 156 ft. tall

Understanding impacts
This database is designed to support research into environmental effects on both critters that fly, and wildlife habitat.  But these data may also be useful in the future to project the impact of down-wind effects on general aviation airports, which is still an evolving research topic.  A recent study at the University of Kansas has shown that the turbulence from a wind turbine extends further as wind speed increases, up to 3 miles in some cases.  This and the potential increase in cross winds could be a significant impact for small aircraft at GA airports.  Hopefully, more work will be done to quantify these conditions, leading to improvements in the FAA’s obstruction review process, which today only takes into account the height of an obstruction above ground when air space reviews are conducted.

Provide feedback
All maps are only as current as the date used to make them.  This data set incorporated information from FAA’s obstruction file as of last July.  And if you come across wind turbines that aren’t in the database, please capture what information you can and send an email with the location to jediffendorfer@usgs.gov.

Thanks to this effort, we have a better way to learn where wind turbines are located in the areas where we fly!

Cessna owners: Check your Atlee Dodge Seats!

Recently an Airworthiness Concern from the FAA found its way to my email, regarding F. Atlee Dodge folding seats.  Designed by Atlee Dodge to replace the rear seats in Cessna 170 and 180 series aircraft, these seats are very popular in Alaska and other places that use their aircraft as a utility vehicle.  They not only fold, but are easily removable to accommodate the cargo many of us haul in our aircraft.  The concern stems from an accident where a passenger using one of these seats was ejected through the windshield of an aircraft when it nosed over.  The subsequent investigation determined that how the seats were installed may have played a role.  This prompted the FAA to look at other aircraft with these seats installed, which revealed that more than half of those examined were also not installed according to the STC.  To address this problem, F. Atlee Dodge Aircraft Services LLC has issued a Mandatory Service Bulletin which calls for a visual inspection of the folding seat installation.

I have a set of Atlee Dodge seats in my Cessna 185 that were installed in 1987, prior to the issuance of the STC. And sure enough—I needed to correct two problems: my installation had no seat belt guides, and the outboard belt straps were attached to the old Cessna anchors, not the slide rail.  A call to Dave Swartz at the FAA Aircraft Certification Office in Anchorage shed a little more light on the subject.  It turns out that not only is the strength of a seatbelt anchor important, the angle the belt crosses your body has a lot to do with how they function during a sudden stop.  The seat belt guides, and placement of the anchors are important details.  If you have a set of these seats in your airplane, take a copy of the diagram from the service bulletin and look at how they are installed.

Diagram from Service Bulletin showing point to check regarding installation of Atlee Dodge folding seats.

Diagram from Service Bulletin showing points to check regarding installation of Atlee Dodge folding seats.

Steve Kracke at Atlee Dodge had me email him photos of my installation.  That and a phone call got the parts I needed headed my way.  Steve tells me he has plenty of the parts that might be needed on hand.

Seat installation with newly installed seatbelt guide, attached to the end of the seat track.

Seat installation with newly installed seatbelt guide, attached to the end of the seat track.

 

Outboard seatbelt attached to the side rail-- not the original Cessna seatbelt attach point.

Outboard seatbelt attached to the side rail– not the original Cessna seatbelt attach point.

F. Atlee Dodge Aircraft Services is a phone call or email away: (907) 344-1755 or atleedodge@acsalaska.net.  If you have questions or feedback for the FAA Aircraft Certification Office concerning the  Airworthiness Concern, contact Aviation Safety Engineer Ted Kohlstedt  ted.kohlstedt@faa.gov or 907-271-2648.  You owe it to your passengers to check into this, and make sure your seats are properly installed!

Customs increases access for GA at Fairbanks

dhs logoCustoms and Border Protection (CBP) is making changes that will increase access into Alaska for general aviation aircraft headed to Fairbanks. In the past, limited staffing has impacted the ability of the port of entry at Fairbanks International Airport to accommodate arrivals at any hour of the night or day, which had been the practice for many years.  Thanks to changes primarily to accommodate the summer tourist industry, GA pilots can expect much more flexible arrival times.

The problem

Whitehorse and Dawson are two popular departure points for flights to Fairbanks. Both require clearing Customs on arrival.

Whitehorse and Dawson are two popular departure points for flights to Fairbanks. Both require clearing Customs on arrival.

A popular GA flight route between Canada or the “lower 48” states and mainland Alaska is to follow the Alaska Highway. The last segment, entering Alaska, can be a challenging experience.  In addition to normal cross-country flight planning, evaluating alternates and checking the weather, one has to arrange to clear Customs.  Typical departure points along the route are Whitehorse (CYXY) or Dawson City (CYDA).  While I personally try to clear customs at Northway (PAOR) to remove the pressure of meeting a pre-determined ETA in Fairbanks (PAFA) or Anchorage (PANC), that isn’t always an option.  Customs is only available during limited hours at Northway, and the airport presently lacks the availability of fuel or facilities (other than the Flight Service Station, open in the summer).  Flying directly to Fairbanks, if you have the range, is often the most viable option.  But don’t forget about Customs.  Until recently, Customs processing at Fairbanks for general aviation aircraft was limited to normal duty hours five days a week–or weekends if you called during the week to make advance arrangements.  These hours sometimes stranded pilots in Whitehorse for the weekend, or longer when weather was a factor.  Fortunately, that has changed, and should get even better.

Customs procedures today
To review, there are two requirements pilots need to meet before flying into the United States.

Step One: File an electronic notification, using the eAPIS system.  This requires internet access, must be filed a minimum of one hour before departure—but could be submitted several days in advance, estimating your arrival and border crossing times. After you file, the system will send you an email acknowledging your submission. SAVE A COPY OF THIS EMAIL.

Step Two: At least two hours prior to your arrival at a Customs Port of Entry, call the port on the phone and advise them of your ETA. This allows Customs to have staff available when you arrive, which helps pilots and passengers avoid lengthy wait times to obtain service.  This call should be made during the hours of operation of the port you plan to utilize.

To find out operational hours and other details for Alaskan ports of entry see: http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/toolbox/contacts/ports/ak/.   Until recently, hours of operation at Fairbanks International Airport were Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and if you hadn’t contacted Customs during those hours, a weekend arrival wasn’t in the cards.  With the port getting an additional staff member, they have expanded operational hours to seven days a week. But you still need to call within normal operational hours to arrange for an after-hours arrival.

Presently, Customs asks that we try to arrive at Fairbanks during their normal duty hours, however if weather or other factors interfere, call and they will do their best to accommodate you.  Over the coming months, we should see a further improvement in service.

Why the change?
Holland America recently changed some of their Alaska tour packages.  Instead of busing summer visitors from Dawson City to Fairbanks (enroute to Denali National Park and parts south), they plan to fly their guests to Fairbanks, reducing travel time for that segment of the journey.  To make this change, Whitehorse based airline Air North applied for landing rights at Fairbanks International Airport.  This request was initially denied by CBP, due to its limited staffing at Fairbanks.  Many stakeholders, including aviation organizations, travel industry advocates, the Alaska Governor’s Office and the Alaska Congressional delegation became involved.  Letters, conference calls and other exchanges of information were made to help CBP better understand the request and it’s implications on the state’s economy.  After studying the issue and considering different options, Customs and Border Protection decided to re-assign three customs officers from Anchorage to the Fairbanks operation.  These positions, which have yet to be hired, will not only support the seasonal Holland America traffic, but will be able to better serve general aviation arrivals in Fairbanks.  During the course of these discussions, it was interesting to learn that the port in Fairbanks not only handles airport arrivals, but also clears civilian arrivals at nearby military bases, and handles arrivals by ship at Point Barrow and Kaktovik.

Alaska’s congressional delegation played a key role in working this issue.  AOPA appreciates the efforts of Senator Lisa Murkowski, Senator Mark Begich and Congressman Don Young. Their staff in Washington DC facilitated the discussion with CBP, which allowed the Alaska stakeholders to more fully explain the situation.  We also appreciate CBP’s willingness to re-assess the needs for service, and for coming up with a solution that will improve access to Fairbanks, and Alaska, for multiple modes of travel—including general aviation—on a year-around basis.

“Doing the Right Things” for aviation safety

On November 23rd, the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation (AASF) held a special aviation seminar, “Doing the Right Things to Stay Alive.” This day-long session was held at UAA’s Aviation Technology facility at Merrill Field. In spite of a storm the day before that closed schools and canceled many events, well over a hundred people turned out to participate.  While it has been a bad summer for aviation accidents in Alaska, Harry Kieling and the AASF team decided to emphasize the positive.  We typically study accidents looking at what went wrong, however the Safety Foundation decided to look at the other side of that coin: When faced with bad circumstances, what did people do that worked?

To set the stage for the session, a panel with representatives from industry and government agencies discussed “what went wrong” over the past year.  NTSB Investigator Chris Shaver gave us the numbers:  in 2012, we had 109 aircraft accidents in Alaska, nine of which involved fatalities.  A total of 11 people died as a result of those accidents.  We aren’t quite out of 2013 yet, but so far, we have had 86 accidents, of which 14 involved fatalities.  And the worst part, over 30 people died.  Many ideas were discussed in the session that followed.  The need for ongoing training was a recurring theme–whether on your own, with a CFI, on a simulator, etc.  As one presenter reminded us, “you don’t have to be a professional pilot to fly professionally.”

What if the Takeoff goes Bad?

Supercub Tyler Renner was flying shortly before take off.

Supercub Tyler Renner was flying shortly before take off.

Tyler Renner, whose day job is to fly corporate aircraft, was on a weekend mission in a Supercub on floats with a friend.  After landing on a Kenai Peninsula lake on a nice July day, and spending a couple hours doing some maintenance at a remote cabin, he taxied across the lake and started a leisurely takeoff run.  Shortly after lifting off the lake, the engine began to vibrate violently, causing Tyler to shut down the engine.  Nine seconds later they impacted the lake, with the wings collapsing alongside the fuselage, leaving the windshield as the only exit.  Both of them made it out of the aircraft uninjured, and were picked up shortly thereafter by boat.  How do we know it was nine seconds from the engine problem to impact?  Tyler’s passenger was recording the takeoff on an iPhone, which provided the precise timing of events as they unfolded.

Note semi-circular hole on blade of prop after the take-off accident.

Note semi-circular hole on blade of prop after the take-off accident.

But what had caused this mishap?  In the examination after the aircraft was recovered, it became clear that a section of the prop had departed, causing the extreme vibration.  A curious, round semi-circle was visible along the fracture line, where the blade broke.  Further investigation revealed that: (a) the hole was made by a 30 caliber bullet and (b) the bullet hole had been chamfered, filled with automotive body putty, and painted over!  It dates back to work done prior to the current owner of the aircraft.  The lessons here: things happen fast, and one has to be prepared to act—in this case shutting down the engine and continuing to fly the airplane.  Tyler considers himself lucky this happened when and where it did.  And that the engine didn’t completely depart from the aircraft.

Loss of Control at Low Altitude
Loss of control at low altitudes was another topic of discussion, presented by NTSB Investigator Chris Shaver.  So far this year, there have been 9 fatal accidents attributed to loss of control at low altitude, resulting in 21 fatalities.  He shared results of several studies that showed the connection between fatal accidents and loss of control.  This is not a problem confined to Alaska, but often labeled here as the “moose hunter’s stall” or the “moose turn” where the pilot is distracted trying to estimate the size of the moose antlers, and stalls close to the ground.  As Shaver noted, in cases where pilots stall at low altitude, there normally isn’t enough room to recover.  He also reviewed a recent accident where the pilot lost power on take-off and attempted to turn back to the runway, instead of aiming for open areas closer to the initial direction of flight. While NTSB couldn’t determine the cause of the loss of power, attempting to turn back to the runway was a fatal decision.

While the accidents from this year are still being investigated, Shaver cited loss of control accidents as an increased percentage of this year’s fatalities.  In 2012, twelve of loss-of-control accidents resulted in only two fatalities.  So far in 2013, fifteen accidents were attributed to loss-of-control, nine of those accidents involved fatalities.  The numbers and causes for the year may yet change as several are still under investigation.  This session lead to a lively discussion with the participants.  What can we do?  Train, practice emergency procedures (at a safe altitude or in a simulator), do accurate weight and balance calculations, consider an angle of attack indicator, were among the actions discussed.  When it comes to the moose hunter’s stall—the pros in the audience described using a race track or tear-drop pattern that has you passing the moose (or other object of interest) in stable, wings level flight.  Make your turns away from the “target” where your sole concentration is on flying the plane, in a coordinated fashion.

When NOT to take off
Sometimes NOT taking off is the right answer.  This fall helicopter pilot Sam Egli took two members of a geophysical research crew to the edge of volcano. The plan was to land long enough to retrieve seismic monitoring equipment that was installed previously.  While the weather was good when they landed, some clouds started to spill over the mountain from the south. As a precaution, Egli stayed in the aircraft to monitor the weather while the crew retrieved their equipment.  As the clouds became thicker, Egli advised his passengers they needed to evacuate, rather than finish their original task.  He cranked up the helicopter and waited for a gap in the clouds to depart—but it didn’t materialize. And sitting in this very exposed location at the 8,500 ft level, the helicopter began to ice up from the freezing fog, now pouring over the edge of the caldera.  Seeing that too much ice had accumulated to fly, Egli shut the engine down, and notified his crew that they were going to stay put.  After spending over an hour removing ice from the rotor blades, they waited for conditions to improve to try again–but no break in the weather arrived.  By now, the buildup of ice on the helicopter was too great to fly, thus commencing a two day ordeal, which received national media coverage.  The Air National Guard’s 210th Rescue Squadron was finally able to reach them by helicopter, and fly them off the mountain.  There is much more to this event than can be told here, but the story, with photos, kept the audience on the edge of their seats.  Egli credited both the 210’s Rescue Squadron, and the team work of his passengers, who had the appropriate gear, supplies and attitude to spend the night, with the successful outcome of the incident. He later retrieved his helicopter.  As a nice complement to Egli’s story, Dave Obey, a seasoned pilot with a local air carrier gave a presentation, “Being Prepared to Spend the Night.” He discussed items that should be carried on one’s person and in a survival bag, using items from his vest and pack as a show and tell demonstration.

Near the end of the day, members of the 210th Rescue Center made an appearance at the seminar. They were presented with commemorative coins that Sam Egli had made for them, and received a standing ovation from the audience.  These are some of the folks who WILL come to your aid when stranded in the remote parts of Alaska.

“What If” Scenarios

Participants voted on answers to aviation scenarios posed by Roger Motzko, FAA ATO

Participants voted on answers to aviation scenarios posed by Roger Motzko, FAA ATO

Many safety seminars involve a presenter talking to an audience with, at best, time for a few questions at the end.  AASF decided that it was important to try and engage the audience in a more interactive way.  Teaming up with Roger Motzko, who works for FAA’s Air Traffic Organization in event forensics, they created a number of questions and scenarios for discussion–with a twist. During this session, participants were handed an “interactive response device” that allowed them to respond.  After Motzko presented each scenario, a multiple choice question was posed–and the audience voted, using interactive devices provided by the Chariot Group.  The responses were tabulated and appeared onscreen. In almost all cases, a lively discussion ensued.  Topics ranged from the kinds of equipment people carry, to their response to a given flight scenario.  This technique was thought provoking, and illustrated that there is often not a single right answer…

Right Stuff Award

Sam Egli receiving the  "Right Stuff" award, presented by AASF Board Member Mary O'Conner. Behind Egli are members of the ANG 210th Rescue Squadron.

Photographer Rob Stapleton captures Sam Egli receiving the “Right Stuff” award, presented by AASF Board Member Mary O’Conn0r. Behind Egli are members of the ANG 210th Rescue Squadron.

In keeping with the “emphasize the positive” tone of the day, the Safety Foundation felt it is important to recognize people that had made good decisions in a challenging environment or situation.  Consequently at this seminar AASF launched the “Right Stuff” Award, which is presented to someone (pilot, mechanic, dispatcher, etc.) that used good judgment in a difficult situation.  Presenting awards to people with the knowledge, skills, and courage that are needed to prevent accidents is a way to highlight the right things that can happen, and to positively change the culture of safety within general aviation.  This year’s recipient of the award was Sam Egli, for his superior decision making skills and moral courage in his decision to stay put on the edge of a volcano in a very exposed location rather than attempt to fly out in icing conditions. It was fitting that he received the award in the company of the 210th Rescue Squadron.  If you know of someone you think is a candidate for this award, please let AASF know.  The contact for the Right Stuff Award is AASF Board Member Mary O’Connor (email or call 907-229-6885).

My compliments to the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation, and the many sponsors and supporters that organized this session. Also thanks to Alpha Eta Rho, the student aviation fraternity at UAA that organized food service for the seminar.  Aviation safety is important to us all. We owe it to ourselves, our passengers and the public to take the time to participate in events like this, and learn from the experience of others.  NTSB Investigator Chis Shaver shared this quote:

“Learn all you can from the mistakes of others.  You won’t have time to make them all yourself.”

The author of this quote was Alfred Scheinwold—not a pilot but a world class bridge player.  But his words are even more important to pilots, as the mistakes we may make often come at a very high cost. Seminars like this one provide an opportunity to benefit from the experience of others, who knew how to do the right things to stay alive.

Sponsors of the AASF Safety Seminar.  Their support is vital to make events of this magnitude possible.

Sponsors of the AASF Safety Seminar. Their support is vital to make events of this magnitude possible.

Jenny returns to the “sky” in Fairbanks, 90 years later

Curtis Jenny, after assembly but prior to being suspended in the terminal at Fairbanks International Airport

Curtis Jenny, after assembly but prior to being suspended in the terminal at Fairbanks International Airport

In 1923, then school teacher Ben Eielson talked a group of Fairbanks businessmen into buying a Curtis JN-4D, a bi-winged aircraft commonly known as a Jenny.  Eielson proceeded to fly out of the local ball field, and soon demonstrated that an airplane could reduce the time it took to travel to remote mining camps from days—or even weeks—to hours.  Even with a larger engine, it remained an open cockpit airplane, without a heater, which is pretty limiting for a cold climate like the interior of Alaska.

As more capable planes became available, the Jenny was sidelined and donated to the University of Alaska Museum in the mid-1930’s.  It spent almost half a century in a warehouse, before being brought back to the public’s eye in 1981. At that time, it was fitted with a set of wings from a different type of aircraft, and suspended In the terminal at Fairbanks International Airport (FAI).  When the terminal was reconstructed a few years ago, the Jenny was taken down, and became the object of a restoration project that started in 2007.  Now, thanks to a volunteer effort by the Pioneer Air Museum, University of Alaska Fairbanks Aviation Technology Program and Experimental Aircraft Association’s Chapter 1129, the Jenny sports new wings, built from scratch, a fresh coat of paint, and is aloft again over the baggage claim in the new terminal at FAI.  The history of the airplane was recently summarized in a feature story in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Another section of the paper recognized the team of volunteers who performed the restoration.

This airplane has earned its place in the history.  Jenny’s flooded the market after World War I, and in many respects jump started civil aviation.  It was affordable, and became a popular airplane for barn-storming, which is how much of the public was initially introduced to aviation. In Alaska, with fewer road-miles today than the state of New Hampshire, the Jenny showed the promise of aviation—even with its limited range and open cabin.  A fuel tank was designed and added to the upper wing to extend the range. A set of skis were fabricated to make it functional during the winter months—thus starting the Alaskan tradition of modifying aircraft to make them more suitable for our conditions. That tradition continues to this day.

An early aircraft repair and recovery on Wickersham Dome, northwest of Fairbanks. George King Collection, Archives, University of Alaska Fairbanks

An early aircraft repair and recovery operation on Wickersham Dome, northwest of Fairbanks. George King Collection, Archives, University of Alaska Fairbanks

A picture in the News-Miner article showing two Jenny’s on Wickersham Dome caught my eye.  In the mid-1920’s, Noel Wien was flying passengers to Livengood, a mining community fifty miles northwest of Fairbanks, when the water pump broke, causing Wien to make a forced landing.  In a landscape nominally covered with forest or boggy tundra, the top of Wickersham Dome was about the only place he thought he could attempt a precautionary landing, with any hope of avoiding major damage to the aircraft.  After getting the airplane on the ground, Wien and his two passengers walked the twenty-two miles to Olnes, the nearest mining camp, where they could use a phone to summon assistance.  Since this was after break-up in the spring, walking conditions were terrible.  It took them twenty hours to make the trek to Olnes.  After returning to Fairbanks, a second Jenny with the necessary parts and a mechanic was pressed into service to make the rescue.  On landing, a wheel was damaged on the second aircraft, but they had anticipated that possibility, and brought an extra wheel along. After making the necessary repairs, both airplanes took off successfully. This story is documented in Ira Harkey’s book, Noel Wien, Alaska Pioneer Bush Pilot.  In that time, before the gravel and paved runways we enjoy today, even the planned “landing fields” were hard on another part of the airplane–the propeller.  It was a common practice to have an extra prop tied on to the side of the aircraft to be used, if necessary, for the trip home.

Earlier this year Alaska celebrated the centennial of the first powered flight, which took place in Fairbanks on July 3rd, 1913.   The Jenny arrived in Fairbanks on July 1, 1923, almost exactly a decade after that first demonstration flight.  Even with its limitations, I think it is fair to say that the Jenny claimed the prize as the first aircraft in Fairbanks to show the commercial potential of “the aviation.”   Seeing the Jenny “fly” again is a fitting way to wrap up the Centennial of Flight in Alaska.