JUNEAU, Alaska — The crash that killed former Sen. Ted Stevens served as another tragic reminder about the dangers of flying in Alaska, where general aviation accident rates are more than twice the national average.
For many Alaskans, flying hundreds of miles to larger cities for shopping and errands is as common as taxis and buses might be to urban dwellers, exposing residents to hazards including treacherous mountain passes and volatile weather.
A clear flight can quickly turn into a nightmare of clouds, rain and wind as pilots navigate tricky mountain ranges, glaciers and meandering rivers. Pilots often rely on sled dog trails, rivers, mountains or a familiar tree to keep them on track.
"A lot of the stuff is not what you'd find down in the Lower 48," said John Bouker, the owner of Bristol Bay Air Service who has logged 30,000 hours in his career. "It's not just a simple matter that you got your license, you went through all the classes. You got to know where you're going, man."
Stevens was so mindful of the risks that he once called plane crashes an occupational hazard for politicians in Alaska, and he spoke from experience. He survived a plane crash in 1978 that killed his wife.
Stevens and four others died Monday when their float plane slammed into a mountainside. Federal investigators are examining weather patterns and the wreckage from the accident to understand what caused the crash. Four passengers survived, including former NASA chief Sean O'Keefe and two teenagers.
More than 80 percent of Alaska's communities, including the state capital of Juneau, are not connected to highways or road systems, making travel by air or water an essential.
Aviation data analyzed by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's Air Safety Foundation found a rate of 13.59 accidents per 100,000 flight hours in Alaska between 2004 and 2008. The comparative national rate for smaller general aviation aircraft was 5.85 accidents per 100,000 flight hours.
Alaska had 515 small plane accidents from 2004 to 2008, making up 6 percent of the 8,010 crashes nationally in that period, the analyzed federal data shows. By comparison, Alaska makes up about 0.2 percent of the U.S. population.