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After deadly year for Alaska aviation, a renewed focus on training

By Matthew F. Smith 7:25 PM November 25, 2013

Survivor testimony bolsters industry message of importance of practice

ANCHORAGE – Nine seconds are all that stood between pilot Tyler Renner and almost certain death.

“Nine seconds,” Renner said Saturday. “You get one choice, and you don’t get to change your mind.”

Those nine seconds were captured by a friend’s iPhone in July 2012, when a routine takeoff from Lake Konovolof, just north of Kenai, went from routine to disastrous.

Seconds after takeoff, more than nine inches broke off the plane’s propeller, throwing Tyler’s cockpit into chaos. Missing the tip of one end of the prop, the engine created enough torque to rip itself right out of the plane. Just 50 feet in the air, Tyler had no choice but to kill the engine.

Nine seconds to figure out where he’ll land.

“The right choice for me was flying the airplane,” Tyler said. “No matter what happened.”

Nine seconds to choose between trees or water.

“I was still over the last remaining part of the lake,” he said. “So I pretty much made a falling left turn back into the water.”

He pauses, remembering the flight. “Fortunately for me, I made the right choice.”

Miraculously, Tyler and his friend both walked way unharmed.

“I think with the repeated training, you train yourself more or less how to react,” he said. “If I have my license, but didn’t train or practice anything for 20 years, I don’t know if I would have reacted and done the same things.”

This year has been one of the deadliest for flying in Alaska: 33 deaths spread out over 13 fatal crashes, with a total of 21 crashes resulting in death or serious injury. While the total number of reported incidents is down compared to last year — 85 so far in 2013, compared to 109 in 2012 — the number of aviation deaths has tripled, from 11 last year to 33.

Now aviation safety experts are turning to survivors like Tyler to stress the importance of training, in simulators or in the air. Training that can make the difference, and save lives, when pilots find themselves with nine seconds — or less — between life and death.

“Most of our fatalities from 2013 came from accidents where the eventual issue was that the pilot lost control,” said National Transportation Safety Board investigator Chris Shaver. “Nothing that we’re seeing is new.”

Shaver sees the deaths firsthand, including the July crash in Soldotna that killed 10 people: Pilot Willy Rediske and two families, the Antonakos and McManus families, both visiting Alaska on vacation from Greenville, S.C.

“Our team just finished another week in Soldotna, doing some follow-up work, surveying and going through some other things with the airplane,” Shaver said. “We took a lot of data at the airport, we’re trying to do some surveys to see if we can find out how high the airplane was, what the pitch attitude was, things of that sort.”

Shaver said NTSB investigators have closed the case on 30 of Alaska’s 85 accidents this year; all 13 fatal crashes remain under investigation.

Shaver and other flight safety experts said more training is the only option to make 2014 a safer year. On Saturday, the Alaska Aviation Safety Foundation, along with other aviation organizations, were promoting options to train Alaska’s seasonal pilots ready for the worst.

“You hope that people learn,” Tyler said after presenting the video of his harrowing landing to the assembled pilots, students and others at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Aviation Technology facility at Merill Field. “If somebody’s taking off of Merill Field and has an accident, you hope that they look at that and say, ‘I’m taking off from the same airfield, in the same airplane. What happened to them, and how can I avoid that?’” he added.

After one of the deadliest years in Alaska’s aviation history, experts stress it’s that kind of learning that can keep deaths from happening in years to come.

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