When Alaska Passengers Put Pressure on Pilots to Make Foolish, or Deadly, Decisions
April 21, 2013
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  • By: Colleen Mondor

    In 1997, a Cessna 208 operated by Hageland Aviation Services crashed in the frozen Arctic Ocean about three miles north of Wainwright. The pilot and all four passengers perished. In its final report, the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) found the probable cause was the pilot’s “intentional VFR (visual flight rules) flight into instrument meteorological conditions and his failure to maintain altitude/clearance from terrain.” The weather was listed as a contributing factor, but the official narrative suggests another factor came into play.

    The pilot, who was based in Barrow, contacted flight service 11 times the day of the crash, asking about weather conditions for his intended destination of Wainwright. Each time he was assured that the ceiling and visibility were low and VFR flight wasn’t recommended. Each time he called back, he hoped for an improved report. Each time he was disappointed. On one phone call he complained, “Shoot… (as) soon as I call the passengers the darned stuff comes down.”

    Eventually, almost 12 hours after his first call at 8:19 that morning, the flight departed. Thirty-five minutes later, while trying to return to Barrow after an unsuccessful landing attempt, it crashed.

    Passenger pressure long a concern

    The question of just how badly his passengers wanted to get to the village and what influence they had on the pilot is a valid one. Passenger pressure has long been a source of concern for the NTSB when investigating Alaska aviation accidents. Studies in both 1980 and 1995 found that passenger attitude toward flying in Alaska was “problematic” and an effort was launched in 2002 to try and transform passenger ideas about flying.

    For those who work in the industry, passenger attitudes about cancelled or delayed flights is a common complaint. While it might seem counterintuitive to ask a pilot to fly in the face of prohibitive mechanical or weather conditions, anyone who has ever stood in an airport when a major airline cancels is well aware of how quickly passengers will flock to the competition in hopes of finding a spot on one of their aircraft. Among major airlines, however, passengers only speak to customer service; pilots are protected from direct contact and strict company rules insulate them from influence. Likewise, air ambulance pilots are never supposed to be made aware of a patient’s condition and even the Coast Guard has “bingo” – or point of no return — fuel when they must turn back from a rescue, regardless of the operation’s status. Policies that maintain separation between passengers and pilots keep flight decisions as impersonal as possible and based upon solely objective reasons. The bottom line is that passenger concerns should carry no weight in a pilot’s decisions.

    Unfortunately in Alaska, such a wall is impossible, especially in rural locations. Everybody stands on the ramp together. Everybody stands around the counter together. Everybody has phoned ahead to family and friends and checked on the weather. Everybody has an opinion and often they are impossible to ignore, even if they lead to danger.

    Knife-wielding passenger wanted to fly

    Several years ago, one of my co-workers at a Fairbanks-based commuter airline was chased around his single-engine plane in Galena by an enraged passenger wielding a knife. Even though the plane had a flat tire, the passenger still wanted to be taken home to Kaltag. Quick.

    Another pilot once told me about his harrowing ordeal on a commuter flight out of Bethel. When he was unable to get into a nearby village and decided to turn back, one of the passengers in his Cessna 207 pulled a gun and held it to his head. Fortunately, the other passengers were saner and persuaded enraged passenger to let their pilot live and get them back down on to the ground. The pilot never pressed charges, or even told his boss about the incident.

    These are extreme examples of course, but passengers pressing pilots about changes to flight status, especially in villages, are a routine concern.

    Alaskans relish the state’s history of pilots willing to go the extra mile under extreme conditions, and occasionally encourage such behavior. But the rules are not different in Alaska — nor should they be. And while it is not common to see passenger pressure mentioned in an accident report, most pilots who directly interact with passengers experience it eventually. This is the sort of pressure that is difficult to prove, although its pervasiveness in the Alaskan aviation environment cannot be denied.

    In 1997, when NTSB investigators interviewed the pilot’s wife, who worked with him at Hageland’s in Barrow, and his station manager, both said he might have felt pressured by his passengers to fly. It could not be proven, of course, and was irrelevant to the accident’s final cause. As is all too common, regardless of outside influences, the ultimate explanation for the crash was, again, pilot error.