- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2004

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Joe Darminio loves nothing better than landing his plane on a 200-foot sandbar deep in Alaska’s wilderness.

Mr. Darminio is part Grizzly Adams, part Charles Lindbergh. Keeping up with that image has led a few pilots to take unnecessary risks. There is even a name for it: bush-pilot syndrome.

“There is a mystique about Alaska, and some people feel they have to live up to certain legends,” said Jerry Dennis, executive director of the Medallion Foundation, which runs aviation-safety programs.

Such programs aim to reduce the number of air accidents by changing the culture of the bush pilots. It is part of the goal of the Federal Aviation Administration to reduce the number of air accidents in Alaska by 20 percent by 2008.

John Duncan, the FAA’s flight standards division director for Alaska, said programs that focus on pilot training, technology upgrades in the cockpit and the tower, as well as passenger education programs, all contribute to reducing the number of crashes.

The biggest obstacle has been breaking bush-pilot syndrome, as well as reaching the large number of the state’s recreational fliers, he said.

“There are a lot of folks in Alaska who have their planes for very specific purposes,” Mr. Duncan said. “They want to go fishing in the spring, they want to go hunting in the fall, and that’s all they use them for.”

Alaskans rely on air travel far more than the rest of the United States. There are 14,230 miles of road in a state that covers 656,425 square miles, making the air a vital means of traveling and transporting goods.

One out of every 59 Alaskans is a pilot, and there are more than 290 commercial air carriers in the state.

This disproportionate reliance on air travel has resulted in a similarly disproportionate number of crashes. From 1990 to 1999, Alaska aviation accidents made up 39 percent of the nation’s total air crashes, 24 percent of its fatal crashes and 21 percent of total air fatalities, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Those numbers spurred the creation of the safety programs.

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