08/13/2010 12:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ted Stevens Plane Crash: How Safe Is It To Fly In Rural Alaska?

DILLINGHAM, Alaska -- Wild and rugged Alaska has always been a dangerous place to fly, but the people who know it best -- the pilots who daily crisscross the wilderness here and the safety experts back in the state's largest city -- say travel by air is getting safer. The high-profile death of former Sen. Ted Stevens and four others in the crash of a single-engine Otter on a mountainside 17 miles north of this community, however, underlines that there are still risks.

Mountainous terrain, fickle coastal weather, limited weather reports and great distances between airports make Alaska flying inherently more dangerous than in most of the Lower 48. Still, an emphasis on safety, improving technology and other factors have cut the average death rate among commercial pilots by about 13 percent since 2003, according to figures from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

"The accident rate is down, especially if you look back 15 or 20 years," said Carl Siebe, board chairman of the Alaska Aviation Safety Foundation. "We are definitely making progress. It's about two steps forward and one step back."

On the ground in Dillingham, a fishing village on Bristol Bay, pilots point to better airports, something Stevens helped fund with federal dollars; Federal Aviation Administration safety programs, something Stevens helped fund with federal dollars; and a greater emphasis on safe operation, something advocated by Stevens and pushed by the Medallion Program, in large part, funded by state and federal dollars.

Safety, said 37-year-old Chris Miller, director of stations for Grant Aviation, is, "a business decision we've made that we're not going to be the ones making headlines." The fearless, hairy-chested Bush pilot of old willing to fly anywhere, anytime for any reason, might have played well in books and movies, he added, but "the sexiness wears off when the coffins come out."

Just before Miller made that observation, a military C-130 Hercules rolled down the local runway past the windows of Grant. It was the same plane that had flown back to Anchorage the bodies of Stevens, 86; GCI Inc., executive Dana Tindall, 48; and her 16-year-old daughter Corey; former Stevens aide Bill Phillips, 56; and the pilot, 62-year-old Theron "Terry" Smith, of Eagle River. All died Monday in the crash of a GCI-owned, turbo-powered, single-engine Otter floatplane. Four others -- former NASA chief Sean O'Keefe, his son, Kevin; businessman Jim Morhard; and William "Willy" Phillips Jr., the son of Bill Phillips -- survived the accident.

An Alaska-ignorant national press attracted to the 49th state by Steven's death has been focused on the flight safety issue in the wake of the crash. To the average American reporter, the single-engine airplane is an exotic machine, something right out of the movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark," even if the airplane is to many in rural Alaska the local taxi. People die in plane accidents in Alaska the way they die in automobile accidents in the rest of the country.

The same can be said for airplane crashes in Alaska today, even if the rate of death appears to be slowly declining despite significant year-to-year variations. According to NTSB numbers, 11 people have died in crashes so far this year. There were only five in 2009, but there were 18 the year before that. Since 2000, 139 people have died in crashes in the state, an average of about 14 per year, but the per capita death rate is better than in the decade before.

One aviation safety expert credits insurance companies, in part. They have raised rates so high that airlines can no longer afford to have an accident of any sort, making them extra cautious. Various safety programs, too, have stepped up efforts to change the can-do culture of Alaska flying to something more safety oriented.

And this is part of what makes the latest crash so baffling to so many.

'It still comes down to pilot decision-making'

The pilot in this case was an Alaskan who grew up flying and became part of the push for improved airline safety statewide. Terry Smith was at the controls of an Otter owned by GCI, a statewide telecommunications company, when the plane flew into the side of a mountain. A former chief pilot for Alaska Airlines, Smith taught floatplane safety for the FAA. And friends say that when it came to flying he talked safety, safety and more safety.

He was in Southwest Alaska on a temporary assignment flying fishermen to and from GCI's Agulowak Lodge because the regular pilot there -- Dana Tindall's husband -- was reportedly on vacation. GCI uses the lodge, in part, to entertain clients, politicians, consultants and friends. Smith and GCI founder Ron Duncan are old friends.

Smith had suffered some health problems in recent years, according to various sources, and temporarily lost his certificate to fly, but he was reportedly healthy and fit to take the controls when he headed for Bristol Bay to help out at the lodge. He had passed a flight physical, but what emotional issues he might have been dealing with are hard to say.

Only days before he went to work at the lodge, he was at the wake for his son-in-law -- Alaska Air National Guard Maj. Aaron Malone. Malone died July 28 in the crash of a C-17 at Elmendorf Air Force Base on the outskirts of Anchorage. Friends said Smith took Malone's death hard and was looking forward to the opportunity to get away from the city for a time into the wild.

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