Alaska’s terrain and infrastructure pose unique challenges when flying. Some say the Federal Aviation Administration has been slow to account for these hazards, leaving pilots and customers to fend for themselves, sometimes with deadly consequences.

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with KUCB and CoastAlaska and was co-published with the Anchorage Daily News. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

Even though much of Alaska has uncongested airspace, in recent years it has seen a series of midair collisions involving commercial operators.

In the past five years alone, there have been five such fatal collisions. There haven’t been any in the rest of the U.S. since 2009. (There was one fatal midair collision involving a for-hire sightseeing plane in Idaho last year, but it flew under the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations typically meant for private aircraft.)

The collisions have prompted some to call for increased use of Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) systems, which can alert pilots to the presence of other planes flying nearby. The technology has been associated with a decrease in all accidents and is required in nearly all of the lower 48 states. The National Transportation Safety Board found that the technology was either not installed or not functioning properly in at least one of the planes involved in each of the five crashes in Alaska.

Below are details of the state’s five midair collisions. Two are still under investigation by the NTSB, meaning the probable cause of the accident has not yet been identified.

Locations of the five fatal midair collisions involving small commercial aircraft in Alaska since 2016. Credit: Ken Schwencke/ProPublica

Aug. 27, 2020

Location: Fairbanks

Fatalities/injuries: Two people were killed, two injured.

What happened: Two planes collided at Chena Marina Airport 3 miles west of Fairbanks International. One plane, operated by Flying Moose Alaska LLC, carrying two hunters from a remote camp, was landing and the other was taking off.

Resulting changes in policy/safety recommendations: This accident is still under investigation and no safety recommendations have yet been issued.

Responses: KUCB and ProPublica tried to connect with a representative of Flying Moose Alaska, but the owner was the pilot and died in this accident. The private pilot of the other plane did not respond to a phone call or email seeking comment.

July 31, 2020

Location: Soldotna

Fatalities/injuries: All seven people on both planes were killed.

What happened: Alaska State Rep. Gary Knopp was piloting his private plane south of Anchorage when it collided with a chartered plane that was carrying six people to a remote lake for a fishing trip, killing all seven. The NTSB’s preliminary report revealed that Knopp was flying illegally; he had been denied a medical certificate in 2012 due to vision problems from glaucoma.

Resulting changes in policy/safety recommendations: This accident is still under investigation and no safety recommendations have yet been issued.

Responses: High Adventure Air Charter, operator of the chartered flight, declined to comment. The day of the accident, the company acknowledged on Facebook that one of its planes was involved in the fatal midair collision. The company stated that it supported the NTSB investigation and said, “Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the families involved in this tragic accident.” Families of the crash victims filed federal suits against the estate of Knopp and his widow, Helen, as well as the companies that owned the charter plane and the estate of the charter pilot. The defendants in the suits have denied negligence claims and filed cross-claims against one another. A trial will take place next year. Knopp’s widow and the estate settled with the estate of another passenger in May in a separate state case. The charter plane operators and the estate of its pilot settled with the same passenger’s estate out of court last year.

About two weeks before the crash, an FAA inspector had recommended that High Adventure Air Charter equip its plane with ADS-B, but a co-owner expressed concern about the cost, according to NTSB interviews conducted in the course of their investigation.

May 13, 2019

Location: Ketchikan

Fatalities/injuries: Six people were killed, 10 injured.

What happened: When returning to Ketchikan after a flightseeing tour of the Misty Fjords National Monument, two floatplanes collided at about 3,350 feet. Both planes were carrying passengers from the Royal Princess cruise ship. The crash claimed the lives of six people, including the Mountain Air Service pilot who was flying one of the planes, his four passengers, and one passenger from the other plane, flown by Taquan Air. Following the accident, Taquan Air suspended all flights for several days. Mountain Air Service — a one-plane and one-pilot outfit — ceased operations.

Resulting changes in policy/safety recommendations: The NTSB issued safety recommendations, one of which encourages the FAA to identify high-traffic areas, like Ketchikan, and require the use of ADS-B technology for air-tour operators in those areas so that planes will be able to see each other’s locations. The NTSB also reiterated a past safety recommendation that calls for mandating safety management systems — which can help companies evaluate and manage risk — for air-taxi, charter and commuter operations.

Responses: Taquan declined to comment. Julie Sullivan, the widow of the Mountain Air pilot, has settled all claims against Taquan Air, according to her lawyer. Six separate suits brought by crash victims in federal court against Mountain Air, Princess Cruises and Venture Travel, doing business as Taquan Air, were settled in April. This month another wrongful death suit brought in state court against Taquan was settled. In that suit, filed by the families of two Mountain Air passengers, Taquan denied claims that the company has a “significant, documented history of unsafe operations” and that it was liable for the passengers’ deaths.

June 13, 2018

Location: Anchorage

Fatalities/injuries: One person was killed, none injured.

What happened: Two planes collided west of Anchorage at about 1,000 feet. One of the planes, a commercial flight by Spernak Airways Inc., crashed into the Big Susitna River, killing the pilot. Although damaged, the private plane involved in the collision was able to land safely at an airport. The NTSB determined the probable cause of this accident was that the pilots did not see and avoid each other.

Resulting changes in policy/safety recommendations: No safety recommendations came from this crash. However, about four years before this accident, following a series of midair collisions in the same area, the FAA made “significant changes” to the radio frequencies used for communication between pilots there.

Responses: Spernak Airways declined to comment. On Facebook on June 13, 2018, the company wrote, “We lost a dear friend and pilot today. Thank you for your support and understanding during this difficult time.”

Aug. 31, 2016

Location: Russian Mission

Fatalities/injuries: All five people aboard both planes were killed.

What happened: A scheduled Ravn Connect flight and a Super Cub operated by Renfro’s Alaskan Adventures Inc. collided near Russian Mission. An NTSB performance and visibility study showed that the airplanes would have been visible to each other for about two minutes before the crash. Neither plane had operational navigational aids that would have alerted its pilot to the presence of the other plane.

Resulting changes in policy/safety recommendations: The NTSB’s final report on this accident included information on preventing similar accidents, including a safety alert that explains the importance of pilots looking for other aircraft while flying even in low-traffic areas and communicating their plane’s position using available technology. Following two other midair collisions in 2015, the NTSB also held a presentation on midair collisions and issued two safety recommendations to educate air-traffic controllers about the circumstances of these crashes.

Responses: Hageland Aviation Services Inc., which was doing business as Ravn Connect, contested part of the NTSB’s investigation and submitted its own report stating the Renfro’s Alaskan Adventures pilot had an “inadequate visual lookout” and didn’t yield the right-of-way to the Hageland pilot. Representatives for Hageland declined to comment.

In an email to KUCB and ProPublica, Wade Renfro, an owner of Renfro’s Alaskan Adventures, said his company is limited in what it can say about this accident due to pending litigation. However, an expert retained by the company concluded that this midair collision was the fault of the Hageland pilot because the Renfro plane had the right-of-way, and the Hageland pilot failed to see and avoid the Renfro plane.

Several wrongful death suits involving the two companies have been settled or dismissed in state court.