The Deadly Myth of the Alaskan Bush Pilot

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THE KETCHIKAN SKIES were clear on the afternoon of May 13, and Mountain Air Service’s owner and sole pilot, Randy Sullivan, was doing what he did every spring: flying tourists through Alaska’s Misty Fjords National Monument. His four passengers that day were off the Royal Princess, a megaship carrying nearly 5,000 guests and crew, and they’d purchased their tickets for Sullivan’s air taxi service while the ship was docked in the coastal community.

The passengers, ranging in age from 37 to 56, wanted a bird’s-eye view of the monument, an unspoiled wilderness teeming with wildlife, waterfalls, and towering granite walls. This was Sullivan’s backyard, a place the 46-year-old pilot knew intimately, having grown up in a nearby logging camp, and his experience promised a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

After a 90-minute tour, Sullivan turned his 1952 de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver—a single-engine floatplane driven by a powerful Pratt & Whitney engine—back to Ketchikan, flying a straight and steady course at 3,300 feet across Revillagigedo Island. Seven miles from town, over the east side of George Inlet, Sullivan’s plane, shuddered as the right wing was struck from behind by the propeller of a second aircraft, another tour operator returning from Misty Fjords. As Sullivan struggled for control, the wing of his aircraft was torn apart. The plane broke up in the air, resulting in a debris field nearly a half-mile long. Everyone onboard, including Sullivan, was killed.

The other floatplane, operated by Taquan Air, remained intact and crash-landed on George Inlet, eventually sinking 80 feet underwater. The pilot and nine passengers were injured; one was killed.

A Coast Guard crew rescues passengers after a 2018 crash. Courtesy Image

The crash made headlines across the country. But as someone with 30 years of aviation experience in Alaska, I didn’t find this surprising. Crashes are far more common than you’d expect in the state, and flying is far more dangerous than it needs to be. 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.

“Alaska aviation has come so far since the early days,” says Mike Bergt, president of Alaska Central Express, a large air taxi and commuter based in Anchorage. “It’s not the same flying at all. But the perception of that time still persists, and it makes everything we do harder.”

Soon after the first air mail was transported in the territory in 1924, Alaskans came to rely on bush pilots, the bold aviators who willingly took on any conditions, navigated near blind, and survived repeated crashes (and, often, weeks alone in the wilderness). A collective myth about these men emerged, fitting seamlessly into the legend of the untamed Last Frontier. But as the Lower 48 transformed into a more regulated flying environment—with an infrastructure that included instrument landing systems, navigational aids, and certified weather observers—Alaska was left behind. With its dramatic geography and extreme weather, the assumption was that it was too wild to control, a view that may have fueled federal indifference, leading to a legacy of underfunded infrastructure improvements.

Emergency workers transport an injured person after the midair crash in May.
Emergency workers transport an injured person after the midair crash in May. Courtesy Image

Today, modern air taxis and small commuters are the true heirs to the original bush pilots. Unfortunately, far too many of them still operate in a style reminiscent of those risk-taking aviators (an excessive number of whom, it should be noted, died on the job). Accident reports from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are full of examples of pilots who cut corners in the preflight process, fail to calculate proper weight and balance for the load, and take chances with the weather. What is common in Alaska aviation has always been far different from what is acceptable in the Lower 48. Now it feels as if the “it’s always been done that way” attitude is too entrenched to change.

AS THE LOWER 48 TRANSFORMED INTO A MORE REGULATED FLYING ENVIRONMENT, ALASKA WAS LEFT BEHIND.

“The myth is outdated,” says Clint Johnson, the Alaska regional chief for the NTSB. “The flight safety situation has definitely changed for the better from the 1980s and 1990s. But the bush pilot standards are hard to dismiss without the resources found in the Lower 48.”

Like other air taxis and small commuters, Mountain Air Service and Taquan Air both operated under Part 135 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. (Large air carriers and other types of operations fall under different sections of the regulations.) These operators are ubiquitous in Alaska: They fly passengers, freight, mail, high school sports teams, sled dogs, groceries, and everything else that anyone can imagine. It’s those Part 135 flights that are increasingly crashing.

In the past, pilots alone were typically cited for the decisions that led to accidents. But that is beginning to change, as federal investigators look for ways to reduce the stubborn frequency of air taxi and commuter crashes.

The broadening search for answers has put a spotlight on some of the companies themselves, as they crash again and again without any apparent procedural changes. Hageland Aviation, now the state’s largest commuter (and which operates under the name RavnAir Connect), has been involved in 42 accidents since 1990. Grant Aviation, another large Part 135 operator, has been involved in 31 accidents in the same period. Dozens of other companies have crashed five to 10 times over the years.

Alaska has half as many commuter and air traffic accidents as the Lower 48 per year despite having five times less land area and a population smaller than Delaware
Alaska has half as many commuter and air traffic accidents as the Lower 48 per year despite having five times less land area and a population smaller than Delaware Graphic designed by Men’s Journal

Ten months before the Ketchikan midair, a Taquan Air plane collided with a 3,300-foot mountain in Misty Fjords, seriously injuring six passengers. (Taquan, as well as Hageland and Grant, declined to comment for this story.) In that accident, the pilot’s decision to continue flying in fog and eventually zero visibility, was a key part of the preliminary report’s findings. These weather problems are less prevalent in the Lower 48, as the aviation infrastructure exists there to fly using instruments between most points. In Alaska, where passengers rely so heavily on air taxis and commuters, there are many towns and villages where landing by instrument approaches is problematic. There’s no certified weather information available, and flight clearances from air traffic controllers, who are hundreds of miles away, is difficult if not impossible to obtain. As a result, operating at many airports still requires visual conditions, which can be marginal at best.

In the Ketchikan crash, the weather was not a factor. Instead, there may have been something else occupying the attention of the two pilots: the demands of serving as a tour guide. In addition to flying the aircraft and communicating with other pilots, they also narrate the flight for the passengers, pointing out wildlife and the scenery. The Taquan Air pilot told investigators he was maneuvering to get a better view of a waterfall. These tour guide duties are not unique to Alaska, but combined with a crowded, loosely regulated flying environment that has no designated flight paths, it’s easy to see how the factors can add up to disaster. In the Lower 48, there are similar areas popular with air tour companies, such as the Grand Canyon, but there are defined flight corridors and common points where pilots report their location.

In the wake of the midair collision, the NTSB made the rare step of dispatching a “Go Team” to the site. Made up of aviation specialists and investigators from across the country, and led by one of the five board members, the team was in town for a week, overseeing recovery of the wreckage, interviewing survivors and company personnel, and gathering information on company operations. In a hangar in Ketchikan, the investigators laid out pieces of Randy Sullivan’s plane, hoping to reconstruct the aircraft’s final moments. As his wife and children began the bitter reality of life without him, investigators looked at every place his plane was hit, every tear to its frame, every strike it received from the brutal beating of the larger aircraft. It will be at least a year before the answers to what happened become clear.

As for Taquan Air, seven days after the midair, it was involved in another crash. In Metlakatla Harbor, a company floatplane flipped on landing, killing both people onboard. The pilot, a new seasonal employee from Pennsylvania, had been with the company for one month and was hired with only five hours of floatplane experience. The NTSB is investigating, and today, the company continues to fly.



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