Epidemiology and Policy Solutions – Aviation

Planes lined in a row on an airfield in Alaska. Photo credit - NIOSH

Aircraft lined in a row on a ramp in Anchorage, Alaska.

Occupational aviation safety has been a core program of the NIOSH office in Alaska since its formation in 1991. The office has worked to identify the causes of fatal and non-fatal injuries among workers in Alaska’s aviation industry, and among workers using aircraft to reach their job sites or as part of their jobs. The Aviation Safety Research Program staff works to prevent fatalities, injuries, and illnesses through the use of recommended policies and changes developed in coordination with numerous external industry and governmental partners.

Policy Analyses and Interventions

Reduction in Controlled Flight into Terrain Fatalities

During the 1990s, aircraft crashes were the second leading cause of death among workers in Alaska. Commercial pilots had a fatality rate of 410 deaths per 100,000 workers, five times greater than the rate for all pilots in the US and 100 times greater than the rate for all U.S. workers. In 2000, the U.S. Congress funded the Alaska Interagency Aviation Safety Initiative (AIASI) with the goal of decreasing occupational aircraft crash fatalities in Alaska in half by 2010.

The AIASI was a multifaceted public health approach that focused on air taxi and commuter operations and preventing crashes that were the result of controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). CFIT is the act of flying an airworthy, pilot-controlled aircraft into mountains, water, or other terrain. Research had identified CFIT as a frequent cause of aviation-related fatalities, especially in situations in which a pilot departed in conditions of good visibility but continued into areas of reduced visibility or poor weather.

As part of the AIASI, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Weather Service worked together to install 100 weather cameras across the state to provide real-time weather information to pilots. The FAA also installed new avionics in hundreds of aircraft through the Capstone Programexternal icon. Meanwhile, training and awareness programs such as the Alaska Air Carriers Association’s Medallion Foundation Star and Shield Programsexternal icon and the FAA’s Circle of Safetyexternal icon program taught operators and passengers about the risks of flying in Alaska.

As a result of this multi-faceted approach, the number of fatal crashes during air taxi and commuter operations in Alaska decreased 53% between 2000–2009 and the prior decade, meeting the goals set by Congress for the Alaska Interagency Aviation Safety Initiative. Even with this success, the fatality rate for pilots in Alaska is still twice the rate of pilots in the rest of the U.S. As a result, NIOSH continues to work with our industry and government partners to address other critical areas of aviation safety.

For more information on the AIASI read our fact sheet or this journal articleexternal icon.

Preventing Mid-Air Collisions

During 1983-2014, Alaska witnessed 30 mid-air collisions, more than half of which had at least one fatality. NIOSH participated in the Matanuska-Susitna Mid-Air Collision Avoidance Working Group to address the hazard of mid-air collisions after three midair collisions in 2011. Representatives from industry and government organizations worked to eliminate overlapping Common Traffic Advisory Frequencies (CTAFs), which are frequencies used by pilots to communicate while operating near an airport or landing area without a control tower.

For more information on NIOSH’s efforts to improve communications around the Mat-Su region and reduce mid-air collisions, please read the fact sheet NIOSH and the Mid-Air Collision Avoidance Working Group Prevent Aircraft Collisions in Alaskapdf icon.

Helicopter Logging

In the early 1990’s, helicopters were used by logging companies in the Alaska panhandle to harvest timber in areas that are otherwise inaccessible and/or unfeasible for conventional logging operations. Helicopter logging operations often place heavy demands on helicopter machinery and associated equipment. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated six helicopter crashes related to transport of logs by cable. According to NTSB investigation reports, all six crashes involved “…improper operational and/or maintenance practices,” that reflected a lack of inspection of long-line helicopter logging operations. The six crashes resulted in 9 fatalities in an 18 month time period. The results of this analysis can be found in the report Risk for Traumatic Injuries for Helicopter Crashes During Logging Operations – Southeastern Alaska, January 1992 – June 1993. NIOSH convened a working group which recommended injury prevention interventions, and sponsored two helicopter logging safety workshops. For more information, please see the NIOSH publication: Epidemiology and Prevention of Helicopter External Load Accidents.

Page last reviewed: January 3, 2017