By Stephanie Shor, News Editor
“It’s the one thing I really regret, Stephanie.” The young pilot lowered his eyes in penitence when speaking of momentarily falling asleep while in flight. It was one of his two days off from a grueling 14-hour-a-day workweek and the strain was beginning to show. Within small airlines, pilots are often responsible, not only for flying the plane, but for loading and unloading baggage as well as customer service.
The remoteness of such paradisiacal landscapes as Hawai`i and Alaska is a large part of the allure that sets them apart from the “mainland” or “lower 48.” While excellent vacation destinations for travelers all across the world, it takes a certain kind of resilience and grace to live in utopia full-time. For those of us fortunate enough to do so, the necessity of small-plane travel becomes a normal part of our reality.
So we reach an impasse; we must necessarily trust our fellow man to traverse the skies and revel in his or her ability to do so. However, do we cherish them enough? Decreased pay rates have set the average airman at barely livable wages. An Island Air pilot currently earns approximately $2880 per month according to the company’s job listings. What was once identified as a courageous cowboy of the clouds has now taken on the identity of a taxi-driver, without the tips.
Hawai`i and Alaska are not quite as different as one might at first assume. Each state primarily utilizes small aircrafts, usually Cessnas, Cherokees or Beavers (floatplanes) with only Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines providing jet service in and out. These often single-engine planes, in turn, primarily rely upon VFR navigation, meaning visual flight rules.
Therefore, unlike jet pilots, they cannot solely rely on instruments to guide their way in unsavory weather. Although equipped with GPS, they largely depend on visual confirmation of their location. With the high rainfall and wind in Hawai`i and the fog and freezing rain of Alaska, this proves for many weather days, white-knuckle flying and extremely skilled pilots.
Halfway through the year of 2013, Alaska has already reached 24 fatalities due to flight incidents, a staggering figure in comparison to the whole country’s 184 fatalities in the entirety of 2012 according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The latest deaths on August 24 of 31-year-old new commercial pilot Robert Lilly and his girlfriend occurred on a well-populated landing strip at Merrill Field near Anchorage. The crash was apparently due to pilot error according to eye-witness accounts and preliminary NTSB findings.
The more common cause of crashes is actually due to VFR flights encountering IFR conditions. Although the presumed cause has not yet been postured by the NTSB, this is most likely what killed two families from South Carolina vacationing in Alaska earlier this summer. The pilot in this instance was the owner of the airline, Rediske Air, and had considerable experience flying the single-engine De Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter.
So, with no ferry system in place for inter-island travel, making flight an absolute necessity for locals, many of you may be wondering if it is indeed a safe travel option. The answer is yes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calculated that so far in 2013, there have been approximately 7,200 fatal motor vehicle accidents. This is a far cry from just 184 plane-crash fatalities from the entire year in 2012. In other words, it is statistically far more dangerous to drive a car than to travel the aviator’s highways.
As witnessed by four passengers on a Piper Cherokee which crashed June 16 in Wailuku, Maui, small aircrafts are much more adept at making emergency landings when an incident does occur. All passengers in this instance thankfully survived due to a skilled and experienced pilot in command.
We must, however, take a proactive role in our safety. Do not hesitate to talk to your pilot before take-off. A luxury in small airlines is that you are often able to meet your pilot and witness him loading your baggage into the plane. Do not hesitate to report any unsafe or unusual activity such as pilot fatigue or a severely overloaded plane. With wings, we have gained both an amazing privilege and a dire responsibility as humans on this earth.
Please visit http://www.faasafety.gov/ for more information on safe flying guidelines before your next trip.