Writings & Bylines

Selected Stories & Articles

Articles for Aviation Safety magazine are behind a paywall, but you can find an updating list of them, thru 2021, here.


The FAA’s latest Alaska aviation safety report harkens back to a whole lot of history

The Midnight Sun November 18, 2021

This seems like it should be a prescient moment for aviation safety. As FAA Administrator Steve Dickson stressed in an Op-Ed about the FAASI to the Juneau Empire, “The FAA is committed to getting the work we’ve outlined done to make flying safer for everyone in Alaska.”

Before anyone basks too much in the accomplishment however, it is worthwhile to consider what the FAASI did not address, which is all the federal reports on Alaskan aviation safety that have come before it. This collection of studies, surveys and investigations, dating back more than forty years, provides remarkably similar conclusions and recommendations as those offered in the FAASI. This is particularly true when talking about the availability of routes and airports that accommodate instrument flight rules, and the prevalence of accidents that occur when pilots fly under VFR into IMC.

You read the article here.

Illegal Charter and a Falcon 50 Crash

Ain Online October 7, 2021

In its investigation, the NTSB focused primarily on the braking discrepancy, devoting 180 pages of the 239-page report to that issue. (An additional 33 pages comprised the flight deck voice recorder transcription.) In its probable-cause finding, the board cited the operator for flying an aircraft with “known, unresolved maintenance discrepancies” and the flight crew for its “failure to properly configure the airplane in a way that would have allowed the emergency or parking brake system to stop the airplane during landing.” But to solve the puzzle as to why the conditions existed that permitted this accident to happen requires going beyond the report to information available in the multiple lawsuits spurred by the crash and the FAA’s investigative inquiry. Thousands of pages of depositions and exhibits can be found in these documents, which highlight the complicated relationship Steve Fox had with his employees, and the fealty they offered to the man who dominated every aspect of the company.

You can read the article here.

Alaska Accidents Show Pattern of Lenient FAA Oversight

AIN Online August 4, 2021

Assessing the workload for Taquan Air’s POIs as compared to other Alaskan Part 135 operators is also difficult. Reading through accident dockets over the past several years gleans mentions of workload assignments that varied from 20 to 70 operators. Some inspectors said they were also responsible for multiple large and/or “high risk” operators, or further tasked with providing check rides for other companies, supervising designated examiners, or often required to travel outside their region and provide assistance elsewhere, all while managing their own responsibilities.

While investigating a 2018 accident that resulted in a pilot fatality, the FAA POI overseeing that company told the NTSB he had oversight for 50 certificates. One year later, the same company was involved in two more accidents, resulting in two additional deaths and three serious injuries.

You can read the article here.

Why we need to talk about the Yute crash near Tuntutuliak

Anchorage Daily News March 12, 2021

“For anyone familiar with small Alaska air taxis and commuters, or companies that operate under Part 135 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), the circumstances surrounding Flight 1002 echo those of previous accidents, when a pilot was instructed by management to “go take a look” and see if he or she could find a way to stay under the weather. There have historically been hundreds, possibly thousands, of these types of accidents in Alaska. Certainly, as Abbott asserted in the Togiak hearing, pilots have choices. The questions that are rarely reviewed by the public, however, involve the choices made by companies long before a flight departs.”

You can read the article here.

Medallion Foundation post-mortem: the safety program that didn’t deliver

Skies Magazine, March 4, 2021

“The NTSB did not formally include Medallion in an investigation until 2013. That year, at least nine Medallion part 135 operators and two part 121 airline operators had accidents, causing six fatalities and nine serious injuries. Additionally, the Alaska State Troopers, a part 91 CFIT Star recipient, crashed a helicopter while on a search-and-rescue mission; all three onboard were killed when the pilot flew into deteriorating weather and lost control of the aircraft. When NTSB investigators questioned Medallion after that accident, executive director Gerald Rock spoke in generalities, returning to the familiar line that their membership chose “to operate above and beyond the FAA requirement.” Sometimes, he concluded, ‘pilots just make mistakes.’ “

You can read the full article here.

Charting the course of Ravn’s CARES Act money raises more questions than it answers

The Midnight Sun, February 2, 2021

“The PSP funds, which are aviation industry-only grants, are meant to be used for employee wages, salaries and benefits. This differs from PPP loans that are available from the Small Business Association to any industry and can be used, generally, for payroll, mortgage interest, rent/lease and utilities. According to a database on those funds obtained by the Washington Post, Corvus was approved on August 6 for $7,398,947 in support of 500 jobs. It was the third highest PPP fund recipient in Alaska, behind Kakivik Asset Management and the Arctic Slope Native Association. Thus, altogether there was at least $22,888,493 in federal coronavirus relief aid directed to Corvus Airlines from the federal government in 2020.”

Read the full article here.

The complicated history of Alaska’s bypass mail

The Midnight Sun, October 28, 2020

“Looking deep into the current maelstrom of political uncertainty, one problem that stands out for Alaskans is the recent attack on the bypass mail system by Postmaster Louis DeJoy. Testifying before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on August 21, DeJoy pointed to the state’s bypass mail system as a budget cutting target, referring to it as “an unfunded mandate” that “costs us like $500 million a year.” Although Alaska’s congressional delegation immediately issued a strongly worded statement which prompted DeJoy to walk back his comments, his threat can not be ignored.”

Read the full article here.

One year later, the crash of PenAir Flight 3296

Anchorage Daily News, October 21, 2020

“The easiest thing in the world would be to dismiss PenAir’s summer engine problems and the decisions leading up to the Unalaska crash, disregard how long Ravn’s $90 million worth of unpaid bills were accruing, pay no attention to the likely sky-high fleet insurance the company was paying and simply blame everything that happened to it on the coronavirus. But just like the transparent attempt to shift responsibility of the Flight 3296 tragedy onto the aircraft, this would also require a determination to blindly ignore so many events leading up to Ravn’s demise, including its 16 accidents and incidents over the previous ten years. It is worth noting the most recent of those was not Flight 3296, but rather a gear-up landing by Hageland Aviation in Fairbanks, four months before Ravn shut down. It was easy to miss that one when the company was so loudly insisting everything was COVID-19′s fault.”

Read the full article here.

Old baggage weighs down New Ravn

The Midnight Sun, August 19, 2020

“Since the Ravn asset purchase, Rob McKinney, who is chief operating officer of FLOAT and CEO of the New Ravn, has stressed that there will be a complete separation between the two companies. “There is no relationship between FLOAT and Ravn Alaska,” he said in a July 31 interview with KUCB. “FLOAT will have nothing to do with Ravn and its resurrection.” According to McKinney, the purchase of Ravn was facilitated by one primary investor, Josh Jones, who is co-founder of DreamHost and a partner in HMC INQ.”

Read the full article here.

Who is FLOAT, the new owner of Ravn Air’s assets? It’s complicated.

Anchorage Daily News, July 24, 2020

“FLOAT is part of a labyrinthian series of airline connections that also involves Mokulele Airlines, Sun Air Express, a past association with the now defunct SeaPort Airlines and, at the center of it all, Memphis, Tennessee-based Southern Airways Express. None of these companies have operated aircraft with more than nine seats and, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, prior to the Ravn sale, FLOAT did not hold any operating certificate at all. As explained by company executives in past interviews, FLOAT relies on Southern Airways for everything: pilots, aircraft, maintenance and thus all aspects of regulatory compliance and operational control. This is not a charter or commuter operation; it is a company that hires a charter and commuter operation to do the job it can not do.”

Read the full Op-Ed here.

The Collapse of Ravn Air Group

Anchorage Daily News, April 7, 2020

“In the wake of Hageland’s multiple fatality accident in St Marys in 2013, the FAA revealed numerous shortcomings within the company’s management structure including an a poor safety overall culture. It was revealed in that investigation that FAA officials had prepared a case to revoke Hageland’s operating certificate, but it was not pursed by their legal arm. FAA personnel also disclosed the $200,000 fund Hageland’s maintained to pay enforcement-related fines.

After the multiple fatality crash in Togiak in 2016 the FAA discussed with investigators its revised efforts to work with Hageland (and thus Ravn) under a new enforcement method termed “compliance philosophy”. This strategy was based on the concept that enforcement only worked on those companies that could not or would not comply. Compliance philosophy, according to the FAA, recognized that companies made inadvertent mistakes. The day the Togiak report was released, which detailed failures in the cockpit, the company and with FAA oversight, Hageland crashed again.”

Read the full Op-Ed here.

Ravn Air Group Grounds Most if Its Fleet

The Bristol Bay Times, April 2, 2020

“We have been in non-stop and ongoing talks with the USPS and the local hospitals in the markets we serve in an effort to make sure we do everything possible to continue to support rural Alaska’s passenger and cargo/mail delivery needs and help fill in the gaps where Ravn was the sole air carrier,” wrote Grant Aviation CEO/President Robert Kelley in an email.

Read the full article here.

The Sobering History of Crashes by Alaska’s Biggest Rural Air Carrier

Anchorage Daily News, October 2019

“All roads lead back to one company and that company dominates Alaska’s aviation environment in numerous ways, not all of them good. The list of Frontier Alaska/Era Alaska/Ravn Alaska/Ravn Air Group accidents and incidents is, frankly, staggering. In August 2008, a Piper Navajo crashed in Aniak and a Cessna 207 crashed in Kongiganek, and in October 2008 a Cessna 208 crashed in Bethel. In February 2009 a Navajo crashed in Nome and in March a Navajo crashed in Buckland. In January 2011 a Cessna 208 crashed in Kipnuk, in November 2011 a Cessna 207 crashed in Kwigillingok, in November 2012 a Dash 8 suffered an uncontrolled 5,000’ descent over Soldotna, and in December 2012 a Cessna 208 crashed in Meykoryuk. In May 2013 a Cessna 207 crashed in Newtok, in October 2013 a Beech 1900 crashed in Homer, in November 2013 a Cessna 208 crashed in St Marys, and a Beech 1900 crashed in Deadhorse. In April 2014 a Cessna 208 crashed in Kwethluk, in May 2014 a Cessna 208 crashed in Aniak, in August 2016 a Cessna 208 crashed in Russian Mission, and in October 2016 a Cessna 208 crashed in Togiak. In April 2018 a Cessna 208 crashed in Atqasuk, in October 2018 a Beech 1900 crashed in Gambell and in October 2019 the Saab 2000 crashed in Dutch Harbor.”

Read the full Op-Ed here.

The Deadly Myth of the Alaskan Bush Pilot

Men’s Journal, September 2019

“Over the past three decades, Alaska, with a population smaller than Delaware, has suffered an average of 26.2 air taxi and small commuter accidents each year. This compares with 44.7 for the entire rest of the United States, an area almost five times larger. In the first half of 2019, there were nine crashes involving air taxis and commuters resulting in 11 deaths.

If commercial aircraft were going down this frequently in the Lower 48, the news would generate an immediate national conversation, and the government would be forced to act. But crashes in Alaska rarely inspire more than a sympathetic shrug, especially outside the state. And for many of us familiar with aviation inside Alaska, this accident is just one more tragic result of a unique yet insidious problem: the lingering effects of the infamous bush pilot era.”

Read the full article here.

Taquan Air Crashes are About More Than One Company

Anchorage Daily News, May 2019

Missing In Alaska

Plane & Pilot, November 2017

“Because of Alaska’s size, its rugged terrain and its often severe weather, flying there is a serious endeavor unforgiving of mistakes. The state covers 663,000 square miles of land and has a coastline 6,640 miles long. It contains North America’s tallest mountain, active volcanos, two national forests, over 100,000 glaciers and the mighty Yukon River. Moreover, its weather, with fast-forming storms, hazardous icing conditions, and frequently obscured mountains and passes, results in a widely varied climate that is often not conducive to flight by visual references. Given all of these factors, disappearances in this overwhelming landscape are part and parcel of the state’s reality and, even more so, its ever-powerful mythology.”

Read the full article here.

Time to Ask Whether the Medallion Foundation Saves Pilots’ and Passengers’ Lives

Anchorage Daily News May 2017

“There are many questions to be raised about the effectiveness of the Medallion Foundation’s programs on the recurrent problems plaguing Alaska aviation, and it is doubtful its standardized programs are addressing the issue of individual decision-making with actual pilots themselves.

Medallion supporters need to think about the failures among the foundation’s membership and what that says about the organization’s methods. At some point, it must be asked if the programs are working to increase flight safety, or serve more to impress unwitting passengers, federal investigators and insurers.

The brutal truth is what happened to Promech Air and Wings of Alaska in 2015 was just more of what has been happening in the state for decades. It was happening before the funding of millions of dollars and the awarding of Stars and Shields, and it shows no signs of stopping.”

Read the full article here.

Flying Dead Bodies Across the Land of the Midnight Sun

Narratively January, 2017

“On an otherwise unremarkable Alaskan day, four teenage boys decided to kill themselves in the village of Nulato. They got a shotgun and a bottle, built a campfire down the road and told their families all the things they needed to tell so no one missed them or worried or went looking. They passed the bottle, told their stories, cried their tears and made their promises. Then one of them pointed the gun at himself, pulled the trigger and died.”

Read the full essay here.

The Short Brilliant Career of Alaska’s First Woman Pilot

Anchorage Daily News, June 2016

marvel8“No one knows what Marvel Crosson might have accomplished if she had not died in Arizona. She might have broken more records, entered more races, returned to Alaska or established a flying business in San Diego. She might be so famous now that schoolchildren would know of her feats, just as they do of Amelia Earhart’s. Marvel Crosson would be Alaska’s famous first female pilot and the whole country would know her name.”

Read the full article here.

NTSB’s Misty Fjord’s crash investigation will be long and complex

Anchorage Daily News July 15, 2015

“Aircraft accidents rarely happen for a single reason.

Usually they are the result of a cascade of factors — factors that can date back months or longer and combine to create the unique set of circumstances resulting in a crash. The skills and knowledge a pilot did or did not learn, the practices a company did or did not encourage, the customer relationships which did or did not influence decision-making and the regulatory compliance the FAA did or did not enforce can contribute to what occurred on a fateful flight.

That means aircraft accident investigations are complex and the NTSB will have much to look at as it tries to uncover what went wrong at Misty Fjords.”

Read the full article here.

St. Marys crash highlights difficulty shedding Alaska’s bush pilot past

Anchorage Daily News May 4, 2015

“The harsh truth of this Cessna 208 crash is that it was utterly unremarkable. It was very nearly indistinguishable from accidents of 30, 40 or even 50 years ago. Tragically, coupled with what took place in Badami, it serves as yet another reminder that for all our technological advances and use of fresh terms like “risk analysis” and “safety procedures,” commercial aviation in Alaska has yet to leave behind its bush flying days.”

Read the full article here.

A complete list of all articles I have written for Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch News & Alaska Dispatch can be found at the ADN site.

The Missing Pilot & the Crash That Rocked Alaska’s Golden Age of Aviation

Narratively, September 2015

“By the time he left Anchorage, Merrill had been awake for thirteen hours and flown for about six. His schedule called for working more than sixteen hours that day, with about nine of them in the air. It was a plan that would not be legal under modern regulations, which permit only eight hours of flight in a twenty-four-hour period and fourteen total hours on duty for single-pilot operators. His situation was complicated even further as his Travel Air was an open-cockpit aircraft that required more concentration to operate than modern planes. Fatigue makes everything more difficult and many pilots have fallen asleep in the air only to wake up too late, after something has gone terribly wrong.”

Read the full essay here.

Anchorage Press

On the Other Side of the Mountains

“It was 80 degrees that July; I wore shorts and flip-flops as I scanned pages telling the saga of the missing men. Sitting in the artificial coldness and quiet of the Alaska Collection, I read every issue of the newspaper for May, June and July of 1928 looking for Wien and Merrill. The story shifted quickly from one of anticipated triumph: “Start Sunday on a Second Commercial Flight to be Made to Continent’s Tip” to uncertainty: “No Word Received Overdue Aviators.” In his brother’s absence Ralph Wien set off for Nome with the mail that had to be delivered to fulfill the territorial contract. Two main stories ran through the front page in the days that followed his departure; one Wien missing and possibly dead while another flew in the opposite direction to get the job done.”

Strange Horizons

What We Left Behind in Jacksonville

“The real way to tell our haunted house story is with the radio and the walls and the voices and the storm. The story needs the details of the crucifixes and the rosaries they both always carried and that mad dash in the rain and the lightning and the thunder to church on Sunday. With my parents convinced that nothing was wrong while quietly certain that something was not right. The real way should have them together, telling the story later to skeptical friends over card games or barbeques or pizza dinners. That way, the story would stay ours; our silly or scary or just unexplainable brush with something other, but still and always—ours.”