With 82 percent of Alaska communities not located on the state's road system, flying is the fastest alternative mode of transportation -- and when something goes wrong in the air, the National Transportation and Safety Board often investigates.
NTSB employees spend months combing through crash information to reach their conclusions. Sometimes, attorneys say those investigations don't go far enough.
When a crash happens, first responders are followed by investigators who work quickly to investigate and collect critical evidence aimed at determining the cause of the crash. Eventually and if needed, the NTSB makes recommendations to improve the safety of pilots and passengers.
Clint Johnson, chief of Alaska's regional NTSB office, says investigators consider several possible factors when determining the cause of the crash.
"We look at three main things: the man, the machine and the environment," Johnson said.
In October of 2001, a Cessna 208 crashed near Dillingham, killing the pilot and nine passengers on board. After NTSB investigators said the pilot didn't check the upper surface of the wing for ice before takeoff, some victims' family members sued the manufacturer.
Texas law firm Slack and Davis represented the plantiffs. It argued the NTSB didn't dig deep enough, claiming the de-icing system on the Cessna itself was flawed. Partner Michael Slack said law firms like his put the pressure on investigators, with the case eventually settled out of court.
"What will cause them to resolve cases or make changes is somebody that literally has their foot on their neck," Slack said.
Johnson says the agency always sends an experienced team to every crash -- including not just an investigator, but also an industry representative in many cases.
"Each one of those investigators can't know the engineering and mechanical workings of every single plane out there; there's just too many of them," Johnson said.
Slack argues the industry representatives could also be serving company interests and worries there is potential that bias can affect an investigation.
"Naturally what happens is the manufacturer's representative chooses to do things, say things to influence the investigation to exonerate the client," he said.
Johnson argued that the goal of the NTSB is always to find the true cause of any crash, like the one near the Merrill Field Airport in 2010 that killed 4-year-old Myles Cavner. The NTSB determined the Cessna 206 was more than 600 pounds overweight, with its center of gravity too far aft, when it took off. Family members of the crashed victims sued the manufacturer of one of the plane's engine parts.
Johnson admits the NTSB could always use more resources, but he said he believes the agency does respond and appropriately research each and every fatal crash in the state.
"If there is a fatality involved, especially in Alaska here, you are going to see an NTSB investigator there along with the team period," Johnson said.
While lawyers, government agencies and industry representatives continue to debate over investigative diligence and specific causes of individual incidents, they all have one thing in common: An eye on Alaska skies.