In the wake of the records release this week on a fatal 2013 crash involving an Alaska State Troopers helicopter, the circumstances surrounding an earlier flight, to Kodiak in 2009, have come into sharp focus. An interview between National Transportation and Safety Board investigators and Sherry Hassell, the troopers’ Aircraft Section supervisor who retired in 2013, raised the issue of pilot pressure on that flight. According to her statement, Hassell recalled:
Shortly after she started work for the section, this pilot was asked to fly a Cessna 208 to Kodiak Island and pick up some people. After checking the weather, he informed her that the weather was not good and he did not want to go. When she informed the colonel (Commander of AWT), the response was that the pilot needed to “get in the plane and go.”
Alaska Public Safety Commissioner Gary Folger, the former commander named in Hassell’s statement, has denied the implication that he influenced pilot Rod Wilkinson’s decision to take that flight, insisting in an email to the Anchorage Daily News that “I have never made someone fly, it’s entirely up to the pilot.”
The issue of pilot pressure has been part of the aviation landscape in Alaska since its earliest days. Kotzebue airline owner Archie Ferguson was infamous for pushing his pilots to fly, as recounted in this 1943 observation by author Jean Potter in her book “The Flying North”:
He is driven to distraction when one of his men is weather bound away from Kotzebue. “Christ,” he will yell over the radio, with other airway stations listening. “I suppose yer boozin’ or God knows what yer doin’. The weather’s fine here. Come on back!” He is enraged when one of the pilots muffs a takeoff from Kotzebue’s frozen winter runway. He will stand by the field jumping, hitching up his pants, shouting and swearing. “Christ, hurry up! I’m losin’ five hundreds bucks a day! Oh Jeezus, I guess I’ll have ta do all the flyin’ myself!”
Unless you do nothing but fly in the immediate vicinity of your home airport on beautiful sunny days every pilot at some time or another will experience pressure to fly. Sometimes it’s a demanding boss who losing money every minute you sit on the ground waiting for better weather. Sometimes it’s your passengers who can’t understand why they have to miss that important meeting because of poor conditions along the route. And sometimes the pressure come from you. Many pilots, me included, get into a can do, must do, get the mission done at all costs attitude. They rationalize that they’ve flown in such conditions, or worse, before and if they made it then they can make it again. Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong. It can be a tough call but sometimes the bravest thing a pilot can do is to call it a day and go have a beer.