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Untamed Alaska challenges pilots

By Marnie Hunter, CNN
Flying in small planes is essential for residents of many Alaska communities.
Flying in small planes is essential for residents of many Alaska communities.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • More than 80 percent of Alaska communities are not connected to a road system
  • FAA: About 3 percent of all fatal U.S. air accidents since 2001 occurred in Alaska
  • Weather, lack of radio support are key challenges for bush pilots

(CNN) -- Pilot Zack Tappan has been flying teachers, tourists, doctors, dentists, food, medicine, mail -- even paper clips -- to remote corners of Alaska for more than a decade.

Being needed is the best part of the job.

"In most places, you can fly people somewhere, and they got there quicker, they appreciate it, but ultimately they could have driven there.

"You're more of a convenience. Here, there is no other way," said Tappan, chief pilot for Homer Air, an outfit that provides "bush service" to locals nearly every day of the year and sightseeing tours to summer visitors.

The plane crash last week that killed former Sen. Ted Stevens and four others highlights Alaska's unique transportation challenges. Travel in small aircraft is a way of life for many in the vast state. Rough terrain and a brutal climate add a layer of risk.

More than 80 percent of communities in Alaska are not connected to a highway or road system, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

A scarcity of roads means an abundance of pilots. There's about one registered pilot for every 58 residents, according to the agency. And Alaska has six times more pilots per capita than the rest of the country, the agency said.

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And serious accidents do happen.

Nearly 20 percent of fatalities in commercial air taxi operations in the past 10 years occurred in Alaska, National Transportation Safety Board figures show. That percentage accounts for 76 fatalities.

Alaska's rate of general aviation fatalities makes up a less dramatic percentage of the national total in the past 10 years: less than 3 percent, or 145 fatalities.

The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that 3.1 percent of all fatal accidents in the United States since September 2001 occurred in Alaska.

"Alaska is a different animal" in terms of aviation, FAA spokesman Les Dorr said.

The extensive use of smaller aircraft and the harsh weather and terrain must be taken into account when looking at accident rates in the state, Dorr said.

Andy Hutzel, manager of the Lake Hood Seaplane Base in Anchorage, isn't as comfortable with flight's risk anymore.

"If I was younger, I would probably be out there flying over the mountain to see what was there, which I've done. I'm 62 years old, and I want to enjoy my retirement and my grandchildren," Hutzel said.

Private planes and commercial air taxis use the base, which is the busiest seaplane hub in the world.

"We have several pilots here at this airport who are 90 years old, still flying. They go out and get their moose, caribou, salmon -- it's just in their lifestyle," Hutzel said.

It's a lifestyle tourists want a taste of. About 15 percent of nearly 1.6 million out-of-state visitors took "flightseeing" tours during the summer of 2006, the last year the data were gathered.

"To get that close to a brown bear, just to experience that much vastness around you, it just blows people's mind. It's fun to share that with them," said Tappan, 38.

Homer Air offers flightseeing and guided wildlife viewing and camping trips during the summer.

Tourism accounts for about 30 percent of the business for Homer Air and Copper Valley Air, another bush service operator based in Glennallen, Alaska. The rest of the year, their pilots support remote communities, flying in and out with people and supplies.

In Alaska, ever-changing conditions and a lack of support in the sky are a pilot's key challenges.

"It's weather conditions, weather conditions and the worst weather conditions," said David Parmenter, 48, chief pilot for Copper Valley Air.

Parmenter, who was born and raised in Alaska, has been a pilot for almost 27 years. On many of his two- and three-hour trips, he's unlikely to encounter a weather facility, which is typical for bush pilots.

"It's just knowing the country and watching the weather and learning the conditions, to where down in the States, you can pretty much go anywhere and have an airport report cloud cover, visibility, wind."

He won't dispatch a pilot in marginal weather who isn't completely familiar with the terrain and the conditions.

"We'd rather not go and rebook it or turn it down than have an issue," Parmenter said.

Tappan agrees that familiarity and experience are key to flying in remote Alaska, where radio contact with air traffic controllers is scarce.

"You know you're on your own. You've got to be able to handle whatever situations come up," he said.

In the winter, Tappan believes, the roads are a lot more dangerous than flying. A treacherous five-hour drive from Homer to Anchorage can be skipped in favor of a 45-minute flight in good weather.

But like driving, flying is not always a smooth ride. Most of the pilots Tappan knows have been in airplane fender-benders.

"If you're flying hard in the bush for years, something's going to happen at some point. You're flying small airplanes in a very harsh environment," he said.

Both Tappan and Parmenter have experienced dangerous incidents.

Parmenter has had weather-related scrapes a few times and one serious maintenance-related incident.

Tappan once landed in a snowy field after his engine failed. The plane was totaled, but everyone walked away.