VANCOUVER—After a fatal plane collision in Alaska where at least four people including one Canadian died, experts say flying float planes in remote areas poses unique challenges for pilots.
Two sightseeing airplanes collided in mid-air Monday afternoon in Ketchikan, a popular tourist destination in Alaska. Ketchikan is located on the southern tip of Alaska about about 200 kilometres northwest of Prince Rupert, B.C.
One of the planes, a single-engine de Havilland Otter DHC-3 operated by Taquan Air, was carrying 10 passengers and a pilot back from Misty Fjords National Monument when it crashed.
The other plane was a de Havilland Beaver DHC-2, operated by Mountain Air, carrying four passengers and a pilot.
All were passengers on a side trip off the Royal Princess cruise ship that left Vancouver on May 11 and is scheduled to dock in Anchorage on May 18.
Arnold Parnaud, who teaches pilot training courses at the Canadian Aviation College located in the Vancouver area, says both the Otter and Beaver plane models are “solid” and extremely common in the industry.
It is not yet clear what caused Monday’s accident in Alaska, but Parnaud, who has had his pilot’s licence for a decade, said flying float planes in rural areas poses significant challenges.
Conditions on the water can change without warning and they are not regulated in the same way as runways — there could be birds, floating logs or waves at any moment, he said.
“You are at the mercy of nature,” he said. “Flying floats is its own niche. It’s unique.”
In addition, pilots in more remote areas like Alaska must rely on other pilots to report their position and intended flight path over the radio. Unlike at major airports, there is no air traffic control to co-ordinate take off and landing times.
“A lot of awareness really relies on pilots keeping their eye out for traffic.”
It is not the first time a major plane crash has occurred near Ketchikan, which is known for whale watching, halibut and salmon fishing and other nature tours.
The National Transportation Safety Board in the United States said in a 2017 report that there have been four fatal crashes involving air tours from cruise ships in Alaska from 2007 to 2015.
In 2015, a de Havilland DHC-3 float plane operated by Promech Air crashed into the mountainside 39 kilometres northeast of Ketchikan. All nine people on board died.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s 2017 report on the incident recommended better training programs for air tour operators in the area, and noted the need for better awareness of scheduling pressures associated with air tours from cruise ships. It is not clear whether these recommendations have been implemented yet.
That 2017 report also referenced a 2007 crash in the same area, involving a DHC-2 airplane operated by Taquan Air Service, now known as Taquan Air. All five people on board died in that crash.
Following the 2007 crash, the NTSB recommended that weather surveillance cameras be installed along critical tour routes in southeast Alaska and that ground-based observation of air tour flights be conducted at least once a month to ensure safe flying practices were being followed. The board also recommended that commercial pilots flying in the region be given cue-based training for weather hazards. By 2012, all recommendations had been implemented, according to the NTSB.
A chief officer of a major international cruise line, who has worked the Vancouver-Alaska route on and off since 2010, told Star Vancouver that the risks of flying float planes are widely known in the cruise ship tourism industry.
“All cruise lines use (float planes). Tight schedules and timelines to complete as many tourist flights as possible during short cruise season, flying very difficult terrain, sometimes really pushing weather and visibility limits” are all factors that contribute to accidents, said the second-in-command chief officer, who would not provide his name because of a non-disclosure agreement. He has no direct knowledge of Monday’s crash.
“Float planes are notoriously dangerous from an escape point of view. They can sink rapidly and people inside who would otherwise survive with little or minor injury become very quickly disoriented,” he added, reflecting views similar to those from the NTSB report.
According to Canada’s Transportation Safety Board records going back to 2004, there have been 63 incidents where a DHC-2 Beaver aircraft sustained substantial damage, and six cases where the plane was completely destroyed. For the Havilland Otter DHC-3, there were 22 cases where that model suffered substantial damage, and two instances where the aircraft was destroyed.
The agency also notes that one in seven fatalities from airplanes that crash into water are due to drowning. In fact, about half of the people who survive the impact of a crash cannot exit the aircraft and end up drowning.
Joanna Chiu is a reporter and managing editor of Star Vancouver. Follow her on Twitter: @joannachiu
Wanyee Li is a Vancouver-based reporter covering courts, wildlife conservation and new technology. Follow her on Twitter: @wanyeelii