The NTSB is asking the FAA to issue a Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) governing Part 135 air tour operators flying in Ketchikan, Alaska following seven fatal crashes in the area dating back to 2007 that killed 31 and seriously injured 13. The most recent accident involving a De Havilland DHC-2, in 2021, killed five. A unique set of topographical and climate conditions exist in the area that can cause weather conditions to quickly deteriorate, leading to VFR flight into inadvertent instrument conditions (IIMC) followed by controlled flight into terrain (CFIT).
The NTSB charged that a voluntary 2009 letter of agreement (LOA) used by area air tour operators outlining routes, reporting points and best practices “had proven ineffective at mitigating ‘overlapping hazards’ presented by a rapidly changing weather environment and mountainous terrain. Both often factors in fatal air tour crashes in Ketchikan.” The NTSB pointed to the success of SFARs in other popular air tour locations including the Grand Canyon (SFAR 50) and Hawaii (SFAR 71) that provide for minimum flight altitudes, airspace limitations, and the installation of enhanced safety equipment on aircraft.
Any potential Ketchikan SFAR should impose weather minimums that are more “conservative” than the 500-foot ceiling that currently governs Part 135 VFR operations and be developed in cooperation with the National Weather Service, the NTSB said. It should also require localized pilot training that focuses on the prevention of VFR into IMC flight. Key components of that training should include the use of landmarks to evaluate the safety of weather conditions on a particular route and the development of a module that helps pilots recognize dynamic local weather patterns.
The NTSB noted that “cloudy and rainy conditions are regularly present around the Ketchikan area due to a persistent onshore wind from the southwest that carries abundant moisture from the Pacific Ocean. In addition, the persistent weather systems in the southeastern Alaska Panhandle…can funnel wind and precipitation into the area’s valleys, with clouds increasing as the weather systems encounter the mountains” creating rapidly changing, localized cloud cover.