Deadly Alaska Plane Crash Highlights Role of Aviation in “The Last Frontier”

By Earl Weener

Member Weener in Soldotna, AKThe July 7 crash of a de Havilland DHC-3 Otter at Alaska’s Soldotna Airport that killed the pilot and nine passengers is currently under investigation. Senior aviation investigator Dan Bower is the investigator-in-charge; I was in Alaska last week serving as the NTSB’s on-scene spokesperson.

Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the ten people who perished in this crash. The NTSB’s role, as it is in the hundreds of investigations we conduct each year, is to find out what happened and why so we can make safety recommendations that, if implemented, will help prevent similar accidents in the future.

This wasn’t my first trip to Alaska, but each time I visit I am reminded of the vital importance of aviation to our nation’s largest state. Alaska is larger than Texas, California and Montana combined; its width greater than the distance between New York and Los Angeles. Here’s what is even more telling: More than 80 percent of Alaska’s communities, including the state capital, are not connected to highways or road systems. The state’s sheer size and the lack of surface transportation heighten aviation’s importance.

 In fact, aviation, especially general aviation, is to Alaska what buses and vans are to many other states. For example, for an away basketball game, the Varsity team climbs aboard a charter airplane. Many people routinely fly to do what their counterparts in the lower 48 consider to be everyday shopping.

Yet, while flying is more every day in Alaska, the challenges are much greater. There is treacherous terrain, including 39 mountain ranges with high peaks, deep gorges and more than 100,000 glaciers. Then, add weather to the mix. At any time, snow, ice, rain, wind and fog can appear in an instant.

The importance of aviation to Alaska adds more importance to our investigation. It’s crucial to understand what happened so we can help improve aviation safety for a state which relies so heavily on all manner and make of aircraft.


Earl F. Weener, Ph.D., took the oath of office as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on June 30, 2010.

Member Weener is a licensed pilot who has dedicated his entire career to the field of aviation safety.

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