Safer Bush Flying: The Technology Is There, But Will Pilots Use It?

Popular Mechanics has just put up a story I wrote as a follow-up to the John Graybill and Ted Stevens crashes, about how the technology exists to make bush flying much safer, but that for cultural reasons many pilots will not use it. I write:

The major killer in bush flying is what aviation pros call “VFR into IMC,” short for “visual flight rules into instrument meteorological conditions”—in other words, a pilot who is navigating by looking out the window suddenly finds himself in clouds. A pilot who isn’t trained to fly in a white-out can quickly become disoriented or crash into an unseen mountain or other obstacle (this nasty outcome has its own acronym, CFIT, for “controlled flight into terrain.”)

Ironically, Ted Stevens was a leading advocate for a new technology that might well have saved his life. Called ADS-B, for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, it relies on GPS receivers in each aircraft that broadcast their location to ground controllers and to other aircraft. When a precursor of the nationwide system, called Capstone, was rolled out in Alaska back in 1999, it was in great part due to the influence of Stevens, who was himself a pilot. The FAA spent hundreds of millions to build a network of ground stations and to buy ADS-B gear for both private and publicly owned airplanes. Inside the cockpit, the equipment displays uplinked vital information. “It gives them a cockpit display showing where they are in relation to bad weather and terrain,” says FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto. “Having that situational awareness cut the fatal accident rate for that type of aircraft almost in half.”

Yet Stevens’s plane was not equipped with ADS-B gear. And while it did have an alternate form of terrain-avoidance system, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says that it doesn’t know whether it was turned on or working. According to a recent Wall Street Journal profile, pilots that knew Theron Smith, Stevens’s pilot, said that he was an Alaskan pilot of the old school, liable to take risks that pilots in more civilized climes would look askance at, such as repeatedly flying the same approach to a socked-in airport over and over, below minimum prescribed altitudes, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the runway. One has to wonder how much attention old-school pilots would pay to a machine warning that he was flying too low.

Smith’s do-or-die attitude remains incredibly common in Alaska, where vast distances, rugged terrain, and a lack of detailed weather information mean that pilots still need to rely on their skills and savvy above all else. In a 1995 report on the hazards of flying in Alaska (pdf), the NTSB identified what it termed “bush syndrome,” or the willingness of pilots to take risks that would generally be considered unacceptable anywhere else. The report’s authors noted that 85 percent of the pilots they talked to admitted to flying VFR into IMC, and 85 percent said that they had done so intentionally, due to operational pressure.

You can read the whole thing here.