Notes from a Safety Talk by an FAA Inspector Who Spent 28 Years Bush Flying in Alaska

Shortly after our trip, I spotted an FAA Wings program that was being held at a nearby local airport. The title was “Weather or Not: Plan To Live or…? What Alaska Bush Flying Taught Me…About Risk!” Fresh off of 2-weeks of battling AK weather, I had to go. Below is a bullet point summary of the talk.

• AK flying is dangerous. In 28 years, this inspector lost 50 friends to aircraft accidents – many of them pilots he flew with and had taught.

• In spite of a military background and being a stickler for following the rules, ten times in those 28 years he got into situations where he thought his life was in danger. Admittedly, the type of flying he did was on the edge: landing DC-3s on gravel beaches, etc.

• “Alaska is where airplanes go to die. We called them “whistling shitboxes.”

• “I would never let my family or friends go to Alaska and take a floatplane ride unless I knew the pilot or the charter company.’ He said the inside speculation on the recent cruise ship floatplane crash that killed 9 people was that the operator had removed the synthetic vision from the airplane because of cost. It was free when the FAA was developing the Capstone program in AK but that’s over now and operators must pay for the equipment themselves. Some don’t.

• The “Direct-To” button kills in Alaska. There is no such thing as a safe direct route in AK for most GA airplanes.

• AK has unique weather systems. There can be rapid barometric changes over short distances. Consequently, your true altitude may not be what you think it is.

• Weather cams have improved safety in AK but they are not foolproof. Fresh PIREPS are best.

• Finally, he said his three hard and fast rules for safe Alaska flying, in order, are:

  1. Never, ever, ever fly toward an incoming weather system. Many of the accidents that took the lives of his friends involved this.
  2. Always have a gold-plated, guaranteed alternate plan. “In a well-planned flight, there are no emergencies – only a change in plans.”
  3. Never, ever violate the personal flight rules and limits you’ve set for yourself. Discipline is key. He credits his military training in helping him live by by this rule over the years.

In summary, I still recommend that anyone interested in flying to and within Alaka to do it. Just know that you will be in a different and more challenging environment. Increased caution, detailed planning and flying discipline will keep you safe and allow you to have one of your best flight experiences ever.