Going Direct: NY Times Alaska Midair Coverage Is Scary

De Haviland Beaver
A De Havilland Beaver similar to the one seen here, was involved in a midair collision in Alaska. Photo by Dllu [CC BY-SA 4.0]
When two small planes, a de Havilland Beaver and a de Havilland turbine Otter, collided in midair near Ketchikan, Alaska, two days ago, it was sobering. The Otter was a charter flight operating for a cruise ship company, Princess Cruises, and the Beaver was a private sightseeing flight, the pilot of which is required to be at least a commercial pilot. Six were killed when the planes collided near the glacier they were carrying passengers to see. Ten more were injured. 

In a vacuum the crash would raise real questions. The biggest is this: In an area of great public interest where there are frequently multiple aircraft operating at about the same altitude, flying the same route or orbiting around the same feature, why isn’t there some kind of plan in place to keep them separated?

The short answer is, there is, the Ketchikan Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA), though as one reader pointed out, the collision took place outside of the SFRA, though in a location of much sightseeing traffic, so the presence of nearby traffic should have come as no surprise. So the question the New York Times, and everyone else for that matter, should be asking is, why did the two sightseeing planes collide in an area well known for having a lot of air tour traffic? Another is this. Were the planes ADS-B equipped, which would have given them both visibility into each other's position and altitude, if they were equipped with ADS-B Out and a display of traffic. ADS-B Out is available to anyone with a smart phone and a cheap receiver. 

But those weren't the questions the Times writer asked. I’ll get to the ridiculously ill-informed questions the Times writer actually posed in a bit, but first a little context.

There are numerous Special Flight Rules Areas around the country, and the creation of some of them was prompted by mid-air collisions and/or flight into terrain. At Grand Canyon National Park, several tragic crashes prompted the FAA to institute a special flight rules area around the National Park’s busiest areas to help cut down on the chances of midairs happening. In Los Angeles, New York and the Panhandle of Florida, the FAA has implemented SFRAs to help keep aircraft flight paths predictable and safe. And while the data relies on small numbers, those numbers indicate that SFRAs are spectacularly successful at protecting aircraft, their passengers, and the folks on the ground below. There's no doubt that SFRAs can be tweaked over time, and perhaps this is a case where the FAA will look into doing just that. But, again, the subject of air traffic safety wasn't on the radar of the author of the article 

That article, penned by travel writer Tariro Mzezewa, fails to mention that SFRAs exist, never mind that Ketchikan has one, instead focusing, as mainstream media outlets tend to, on why aren’t small planes regulated like the airlines because, you see, they are really scary. One statement seemed to capture the staggering lack of perspective the writer has on aviation. She wrote:

The accident, which also left 10 injured, was among many involving small planes in the United States in recent months. This alarming frequency has raised questions about the level of regulation applied to planes operated by private pilots and smaller companies, which is less stringent than that for large commercial aircraft.

In pointing out the “alarming frequency of crashes,” the author fails to provide numbers or attribution—How many crashes were there? During what time span? And how has the “frequency” of crashes grown? And if it has, compared to what other period of time have they grown? Our guess is there’s no substance behind these claims at all. And as far as describing the frequency of crashes being “alarming,” who is it that’s concerned? Is it the author, who uses a random grouping of unrelated crashes across the country for something she hopes will pass as evidence for her claim? Is it she who is alarmed? Or is it someone who knows something about aviation? If so, who are they and what are they alarmed about?

She goes on to lose all credibility by bringing in as her expert maritime law attorney Jack Hickey, a plaintiff’s attorney in maritime law who weighs in that “there are a lot of these accidents involving private aviation and after National Transportation Safety Board completes its investigation, there should be more talk about more regulations.” Which is amazingly exactly the feeling the author has about things. That she had to find a lawyer who specializes in representing victims of crashes at sea to opine on an aviation accident about which he is not an expert in a field in which he presumably is not either tells you everything you need to know about the value of the piece.

It’s hard to blame the author too much. Ms. Mzezewa is a victim herself of the classic flaw of not knowing what she doesn’t know, and that subject is aviation. Her story is a perfect example of confirmation bias. The author is ignorant about small planes and the regulations that drive them so she blithely proposes that we need to regulate them more stringently, suggesting we do it in a way that makes Part 91 more like airline flying, which, as we know, would be the end of nearly all private aviation.

The sad thing, the tragic thing, is that Ms. Mzezewa presents a case that while shockingly ignorant of basic tenets of aviation mechanics, operation and regulation, sounds convincing to people like her who don’t know what they don’t know and who now, after reading this alarmist NYT piece are a little more afraid of small airplanes.

Which is really bad for all of us who do understand.

Which leads me to another subject: have you renewed your AOPA and EAA dues yet?

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