Every day they launch. Squadrons of sightseeing flights — hundreds per day — depart Ketchikan, Alaska, bound for the Misty Fjords, a huge tourist attraction near the city in the southeastern tip of the state. They fly to the valley, with hopes of viewing the stunning scenery without having to turn back because of inclement weather.
“You’d think there was a war on,” mused Walter Combs, head of the FAA’s Weather Camera program, about the daily flight log.
And in one sense, there is: It’s a war to keep those pilots and their passengers safe as they traverse some of the most beautiful — and dangerous — topography in Alaska. Every day during the height of the May-September tourist season, three or four huge cruise ships dock in Ketchikan. Thousands of those passengers opt to fly to Misty Fjords for sight-seeing.
Near the entrance to the Misty Fjords, on a good day...and in tougher flying conditions.
“The only weather reporting is at the beginning of Misty Fjords and at Ketchikan. There’s nothing in between,” explained Combs, who has headed up the Weather Camera program since 2011. He described a scenario in which tour operators used to send out a plane every hour to scout the flying conditions. If conditions appeared suitable, the planes would launch.
Pilots of those flights fly one of two standard routes from Ketchikan to the fjords, but weather can be unpredictable and change so quickly that pilots often have to reroute or divert over unfamiliar terrain.
“That creates an unacceptable risk to the traveling public,” said Clint Wease, manager of the Alaskan Region Flight Standards Division.
Wease has been working for the FAA in Alaska for 19 years and, prior to that, flew for 23 years in Alaska. In that time, he has seen more than his fair share of accidents. In fact, a fatal accident in Misty Fjords in 2007 raised awareness of the dangers there. The National Transportation Safety Board recommended the installation of weather cameras to help pilots flying to and from the fjords. But there was only enough money to install one camera at the entrance.
The final straw for Wease came June 25, 2015 when a DHC-3 sight-seeing plane crashed in marginal and rapidly changing weather conditions, killing nine passengers.
“He got into the clouds and hit a mountain,” said Combs.
“Many of our fatal and serious-injury accidents are the result of continued visual flight into instrument meteorological conditions resulting in fatal accidents,” said Wease. “This was the case of the accident that occurred … in June 2015. The weather that day was marginal and the pilot was returning direct back to Ketchikan from the Mistys when the accident occurred.”
The case troubled Wease. “It was horrific. Nine folks lost their lives. When I listened to the debriefing, and looked at the data behind it, I wondered, did the pilot have enough resources to make good decisions? After all, one of Administrator Huerta’s priorities is promoting good pilot decision making.”
Deputy Director Michael Zenkovich during a site visit to the Misty Fjords in 2014.
During the follow-up meeting with the carrier in Ketchikan, Wease observed air traffic operating out of the narrows. Even though the flying conditions that day were marginal, Wease said he saw a significant number of operations departing to the west, while there was none to the east towards the Mistys.
“After opening my weather camera app on my iPhone, it was easy to see the reason for the westerly departure,” said Wease. “The large number of weather camera sites to the west showed an improving weather situation with high ceilings and visibility. However, to the east, there was only one site at the entrance to the Misty Fjords. I thought that if we had a couple of additional sites, one along the direct route and one along a lower weather route over the water, pilots would be able to make better go/no-go decisions.”
Wease approached Combs at the Weather Camera office to discuss the feasibility and cost of installing a couple of weather cameras in Misty Fjords.
One of the nearly 900 weather cameras situated throughout Alaska.
“The Flight Standards folks came to me and said, ‘Why not install some more cameras?’” Combs told them money was tight, so Flight Standards said they could help them acquire the needed funding.
It was nearing the end of the fiscal year and Wease and his team had only a few days to secure the funding. “I wrote the justification and Walter had all the contracts in place to make the weather cameras a reality once funding was secured,” said Wease. “It was really a team effort,” he added.
An important part of that team was Alaskan Regional Administrator, Kerry Long, who turned to his own contacts in Aviation Safety (AVS).
“I asked Kerry if he could help us get the funding,” said Wease. “He said, ‘Sure.’ He knew folks in AVS from his days as the agency’s chief counsel.”
“Kerry made a phone call,” said Combs. “I was amazed at the turnaround time. In less than 72 hours, we had secured $1.5 million to fund the project. Once we had the money in Flight Standards, we transferred it to Walter in the Weather Camera office and he began to work his magic. I was pretty proud of that coordinated effort, and to Walt Combs, AVS and Flight Standards.”
Installing weather cameras in a remote area is challenging, and involves securing leases for the land and building a self-sufficient system that will withstand the rigors of the Alaskan environment.