ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - The deaths of four cruise ship passengers in 2007 during a sightseeing flight to Misty Fjords National Monument in southeast Alaska prompted terse words from the National Transportation Safety Board, which demanded safer practices. The agency wanted better weather data, better pilot training, and more rigorous oversight of air tour operators from the FAA.
At the time, Alaska's cruise ship industry was on the rise, with an estimated 900,000 cruise ship passengers expected in Ketchikan in 2007. More than a decade later, the industry remains a huge economic driver for the region.
Cruise ship passengers account for nearly 95 percent of all visitors to Ketchikan, and nearly 1,010,400 people traveled to Ketchikan by cruise ship in 2017, according to the Ketchikan Visitor's Bureau. Of those, some six percent will select flight seeing as an activity.
On July 24, 2017, declining weather conditions, described by one tour pilot as a "wall of weather" -- low clouds, rain and fog -- had hampered visibility 40 miles northeast of Ketchikan, according to an NTSB accident report. They determined that the pilot's inadequate weather evaluation, and his decision to keep flying under visual flight rules in conditions that required instruments contributed to the crash of the Taquan Air flight.
The final accident summary, published in August 2008, found probable cause as "the pilot's decision to continue under visual flight rules into an area of instrument metrological conditions. Contributing to the accident was the pilot's inadequate weather evaluation, and the FAA's inadequate surveillance of the commercial air tour operator."
The NTSB noted that the FAA had allowed the lapse of an oversight program in which staff flew unidentified as passengers on flight tours, citing in part the loss of inspectors to downsizing.
In a safety recommendation published in July 2008, the NTSB wrote "based on the preliminary findings from this investigation, and the findings from four other previous air tour accidents during the past 10 years, the Safety Board is concerned about the lack of weather information, ineffective Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversight of air tour operators’ adherence to required weather minimums, and inadequate pilot training for commercial air tour operations in Southeast Alaska."
The NTSB asked the FAA to "develop a permanent mechanism to provide en route and ground-based observations of air tour flights in Southeast Alaska at least once a month during the tour season to ensure operators are adhering to safe flying practices."
In December of 2013, the FAA updated the NTSB on its progress, stating that as of 2010, "en route inspections of air tour operators were permanently added," and that a special surveillance indexing system would be in place for southeast Alaska.
A few months later, the NTSB acknowledged the progress, telling the FAA "we are pleased that you have incorporated surveillance activities that are unique and appropriate to the Alaska air tour environment—particularly the remote observations, which we believe sends a message to all air tour operators that the FAA is observing their operations and is not focusing solely on an individual carrier or carriers."
Mike Slack, a Texas-based aviation attorney who represents victims of a 2018 Taquan air crash in which several passengers were injured, believes air tourism in southeast Alaska needs continued improvement, citing pressures to generate revenue, get as much as they can out of the summer season, and adhere to cruise ship schedules.
"When you're dealing with common carriers that take money and are paid to transport people, whether it's a charter, a schedule airline or an air tour, there is a requisite amount of safety that the public should be able to expect that the air tour operator will exercise regardless of where they do it," Slack told KTUU.
"The fact that Alaska has mountains, that Alaska has rapidly changing weather conditions, the fact that Alaska has the challenges of remoteness and radios don't always work very well over the long distances -- those are simply factors the air tour operator ask to be built into the safety matrix to make sure they can do it safely," he said.
"We will never put our guests in harm’s way and take every precaution necessary to make sure that we are making the most informed decision about flight conditions for that day," Taquan Air told KTUU through a spokesperson Wednesday, responding to Slack's criticism. "Safety is the ultimate priority."
Pilots are extensively trained, closely monitor weather conditions, fly with 4 miles of visibility, and the company has voluntarily adopted safety practices beyond those required by federal standards, Taquan said via email, adding "we use the resources available to us through this program to ensure that our pilots have what they need to operate a safe flight from takeoff to landing."
The company told KTUU that monitoring systems on its planes would be able to detect nearby aircraft. It referred questions about how a mid-air collision could occur to the NTSB, citing the ongoing investigation.
What follows is a list of known crashes departing from or bound for Ketchikan, gathered from NTSB accident records.
May 13, 2019: Planes operated by Taquan Air and Mountain Air Services collide mid-air, causing fatalities and serious injuries. The investigation is underway.
July 10, 2018: A Taquan Air De Havilland DHC-3 struck mountainous terrain, seriously injuring six passengers. Four passengers experienced minor injuries, the pilot was uninjured. The pilot had turned off the Terrain Awareness and Warning System.
June 25, 2015: A De Havilland DHC-3 operated by Promech Air, Inc., collided with mountainous terrain, killing eight passengers and the pilot. The NTSB determined probable cause as "(1) the pilot's decision to continue visual flight into an area of instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in his geographic disorientation and controlled flight into terrain; and (2) Promech's company culture, which tacitly endorsed flying in hazardous weather and failed to manage the risks associated with the competitive pressures affecting Ketchikan-area air tour operators; its lack of a formal safety program; and its inadequate operational control of flight releases."
July 24, 2013: An engine on a DeHavilland Beaver DHC-2 operated by Promech Air LLC lost power, causing a crash landing, seriously injuring three people. The NTSB determined an equipment problem -- the failure of the linkrod or its bushing -- caused the crash.
July 2, 2012: A De Havilland Beaver DHC-2 operated by S&S Aircraft Leasing, Inc. experienced difficulty on takeoff, causing a wing to strike the water. The NTSB determined probable cause to be "the pilot’s failure to maintain directional control during a step turn on floats."
July 24, 2007: A De Havilland DHC-2 operated by Venture Travel LLC (which owns Taquan Air) crashed into steep, tree-covered terrain, killing four passengers and the pilot. The NTSB determined probable cause to be "The pilot's decision to continue under visual flight rules into an area of instrument metrological conditions. Contributing to the accident was the pilot's inadequate weather evaluation, and the FAA's inadequate surveillance of the commercial air tour operator."
July 28, 2005: A De Havilland DHC-3 operated by Promech Inc.experienced a flash fire in the cockpit, causing an emergency landing. The pilot suffered burns, 10 passengers were uninjured. The NTSB's probable cause finding was "an electrical arc on the exterior of a fuel pressure line that initiated a fuel leak and fire during cruise flight, which resulted in serious injuries to the pilot as he performed an emergency landing on the water. A factor contributing to the accident was an inadequate annual inspection of the airplane by company maintenance personnel."
August 19, 2002: Two airplanes operated by ProMech, Inc., collided in mid-air when a plane gaining altitude struck a plane that had established a level path. None of the passengers or pilots were injured. The NTSB found probable cause to be "the pilot's failure to maintain an adequate visual outlook during cruise climb, which resulted in a midair collision between the two airplanes."
June 19, 2002: An idling plane hit another plane at the dock after a dockhand prematurely let go of a mooring rope. The NTSB found probable cause to be "The failure of a ground handler to follow company procedures/directives, and his premature release of a mooring line. Factors associated with the accident were the congested operations area, and the operator's failure to provide adequate safe zones for the airplanes."
Dec. 12, 1996: A Taquan Air De Havilland DHC-2 crashed into the water, killing the pilot. The NTSB determined "the pilot's inadequate compensation for wind conditions, and failure to maintain adequate airspeed, which resulted in an inadvertent stall and collision with terrain (water). A factor associated with the accident was the gusty wind condition."
June 8, 1994: The wing of a Taquan Air Cessna 185 struck rough water in Kassan Bay. The NTSB determined probable cause as "the pilot's inadequate compensation for the wind."
June 4, 1992: Rivets failed on a Taquan Air De Havilland DHC-3, causing the airplane's control yoke to vibrate and the nose to pitch down.
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