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5 Killed in Mid-Air Crash of 2 Sightseeing Planes in Alaska

Are Floatplane Tours Safe?

May 14, 2019

The horrific mid-air crash of two sightseeing planes in Ketchikan, Alaska, that killed at least five people raises new concerns about the safety of air tourism in a locale known for its mountainous terrain, along with thick fog, snow, rain, and clouds, all of which can impede visibility.

What’s known at this time from news reports is that all 14 passengers involved in the May 13 crash of the two floatplanes came from the cruise ship Royal Princess, operated by Princess Cruises. The ship was on a seven-day trip from Vancouver, B.C., to Anchorage.

The two planes collided about eight nautical miles off Ketchikan. One plane, operated by Taquan Air, was carrying 10 guests from the cruise ship and a pilot. It was returning from a shore excursion to Misty Fjords National Monument that was booked through the cruise line. The other plane, run by an independent tour operator, carried four of the ship’s passengers and the pilot.

All four passengers and the pilot on the independently operated aircraft died in the crash, according to Princess Cruises. Ten people on the Taquan flight, including one who is reportedly in critical medical condition, were rescued.

The crash marks the second collision for Taquan within the past year in this rural area known for its dangerous flying conditions. In July 2018, a Taquan plane crashed into the mountainside, causing serious injuries to all 11 people onboard. Investigators concluded that Taquan’s pilot had turned off a warning system that would have alerted to the danger.

This week’s accident is reminiscent of another tragedy involving vacationers.

In 2015, a floatplane that was carrying passengers of a Holland American Line cruise ship crashed into a cliff while traveling to the Misty Fjords area. Nine people, including the pilot, died. Investigators concluded that the pilot had become disoriented in cloudy weather under pressure from his company, Promech Air, to get the passengers back to the cruise ship before its scheduled departure.

Are Floatplane Tours Safe?

Floatplane tours promise breathtaking views of Ketchikan’s mountains, valleys, lakes, waterfalls, and wildlife along with the fun and adventure of a water landing.

But the setting provided by Mother Nature that draws thousands of tourists to Ketchikan each year makes these tours a recipe for disaster, Feldman Shepherd aviation attorney G. Scott Vezina, a pilot for more than 30 years, said.

The planes in Ketchikan operate under difficult flying conditions, Vezina said. There is no control tower where air traffic controllers are working to ensure that planes packed with tourists do not crash into each other or into the mountains. Pilots are flying under what’s called Visual Flight Rules (VFR), meaning they are literally looking out the window to avoid colliding with anything.

Alaska’s weather is not always conducive to VFR, Vezina said. Ketchikan has a limited amount of sunshine. Fog, snow, rain, and clouds are the norm, he said.

Additionally, the floatplanes are typically older-models that are not equipped with sophisticated Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS), which warn pilots when other aircraft present a threat of mid-air collision, Vezina said.

Water landings, while thrilling, are also risky, he said. Hazards such as rocks and logs can be lurking beneath pristine waters. Windy conditions and water turbulence add to the peril.

How Many Planes Crash in Alaska?

According to FAA data, from 2010 to 2015, there were 26 Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT) plane crashes in Alaska. CFIT occurs when a plane, while under the full control of its pilot, flies into terrain, water or on obstacle.

Alaska had the second-greatest number of CFIT crashes, falling behind California, which had 33.

By way of comparison, here are the other states that the FAA ranked in the Top Eight for CFIT crashes:

  • Arizona (18)
  • Texas (17)
  • Colorado (14)
  • Florida (14)
  • New York (13)
  • Pennsylvania (13)

How to Pick a Safe Floatplane Tour

If you decide to go on a floatplane tour, a little research might go a long way in minimizing your risk, Vezina said.

He recommends that you pick operators with newer fleets, when possible. “Newer is better,” he said. “You don’t want to be with a tour operator that is flying ‘dinosaurs’ around.”

Also, the National Transportation Safety Board website provides an Aviation Accident Database in which consumers can type in the name of a tour company and get information about accidents and other incidents related to safety.

“Do your homework,” Vezina said. “You are putting your life in the hands of the tour operator. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

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