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The  American Journal of Epidemiology reports the cause of aircraft wrongful deaths civilian pilots in Alaska over a ten year period.

Researchers from the Center for Disease Control and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health focused on Alaska which has a pilot fatality rate of 410/100,000 a year – the highest in the nation. They investigated work-related crashes between 1990 and 1999 and studied crashes in which working, as opposed to recreational, pilots both survived and died.
National Transportation Safety Board reports were analyzed focusing on the pilot’s age, flight experience, use of a shoulder belts, weather conditions, Visual Flight Rules, Instrument Flight Rules, day, night, fixed.wing or helicopter, postcrash fire, airport crash or other location and pilot residency.

Leading the list of factors associated with death are post-crash fire, bad weather and non-Alaskan residency.

Significant associations were found between fatality and postcrash fire (adjusted odds ratio (AOR) = 6.43, 95% confidence interval (CI): 2.38, 17.37), poor weather (AOR = 4.11, 95% CI: 2.15, 7.87), and non-Alaska resident status (AOR = 2.10, 95% CI: 1.05, 4.20).

For aircrash survivors, the use of shoulder belts (AOR = 0.40, 95% CI: 0.21, 0.77) and flying in daylight as opposed to night (AOR = 0.50, 95% CI: 0.25, 0.99) were key factors.

It is not surprising that Alaskan pilots have a much high survival rate, given the treacherous nature of flying in a rugged, frontier environment and the knowledge necessary to cope with its challenges and quickly changing weather.

Unfortunately the study did not consider aircraft loading, specific time of day, land versus float aircraft, single and twins, hours worked prior to crash, time in flight, distance from closest airport and the predominant precipitating cause, all of which are critical issues in aircrash safety litigation.

When end of day fatigue combine with mechanical problems, severe weather and darkness, the probability of flawless execution of emergency procedures is dramatically less, as is surviving in an emergency landing. According to this study, when flying in Alaska, scrub flights in marginal weather, or those that cannot be completed in daylight, fly only with experienced bush pilots and buckle up. To increase the margin of safety, fly early in, in aircraft that are well maintained and not overloaded.

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Richard Alexander