Why Are There So Many Airplane Crashes in Alaska?

In the wake of this latest crash, sympathies to all affected, and good wishes for those who have initially survived.

A word of context about flying in Alaska. Does it merely seem more dangerous than normal, because of some famous cases? (Eg, the previous crash that Sen. Ted Stevens survived but that killed his first wife, in 1978; the Nick Begich-Hale Boggs tragedy of 1972; Wiley Post long before that?) Or is it actually riskier in some way?

I don't have statistics at hand, but I have always understood Alaskans to endure an unusually high crash risk, for this basic reason: flying in Alaska, especially in small planes, is both more necessary and more dangerous than in the rest of the United States.

Necessary: Because the distances are vast, the terrain often impassable, and the road network rudimentary, Alaskan life is held together by a small-plane aviation system in a way that has no counterpart in the rest of the country. The famous example is the capital, Juneau. No roads whatsoever connect it with the rest of the world, so you get in and out strictly by boat or plane. When I first visited Anchorage in the early 1980s, I was surprised to see how many people had small planes on their property or float planes in the water, how normal rather than strange it was for people to know how to handle an airplane.

Dangerous: Jagged peaks*; steep fjords and foggy conditions along the coastline; extreme weather in the interior. The same rugged terrain that makes aviation necessary also means pilots can rely less on air-traffic controllers to help. Radar works on "line of sight" principles, so the controllers' radar can't see airplanes flying between mountains.

Thus Alaskans have an unusual need to fly, and face unusual dangers when they fly. The natural result is a different risk-reward calculation** than in other parts of the country. Alaskan pilots get used to making trips in circumstances that would persuade someone in, say, Nevada or Pennsylvania to wait another day. The higher average level of skill among veteran Alaskan pilots buffers some of the resulting higher risk. But not all.

I don't know whether that kind of calculation played any part in the current crash. But it's why Alaskans have more extensive first-hand knowledge of the rewards and risks of flying -- and why to them it would seem tragic and unlucky, but not inconceivable, that an Alaskan like Ted Stevens would have been in not one but two crashes.
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* To spell out the danger here: Initial reports suggest that the pilot in this crash may have gotten into clouds. Even if a plane is nowhere near the ground, entering a cloud can be dangerous if the pilot is not instrument-trained. In that case, he can lose his sense of up-versus-down and spiral to the ground, as in the JFK Jr. crash 11 years ago. And even when a pilot is professionally trained, clouds and fog can be dangerous anywhere in the world if he is trying to land, as in the Polish airplane disaster in Katyn. Still, in most places, entering a cloud does not bring immediate risk of flying into a hill or mountain side, as it would in Alaska's crags.

** A disproportionate number of politicians have also been killed or injured in small-plane crashes. I believe it is because of a similarly altered risk-reward calculation: they often feel they need to make campaign trips that a mere business- or leisure-traveler might postpone, and to go to remote locations in small planes.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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